I really enjoyed this novel and the things it made me think about. Although in some ways this seems like the wrong context in which to consider it (at any rate, there are others more or equally relevant), I couldn’t help comparing it, as I went along, to the novels I discussed along with Joanna Trollope’s A Village Affair, because in its own way, it too deals with a woman reconsidering the ways her marriage requires her to compromise her individualism. Of course, Nazneen’s marriage has its particular form in large part because of her culture and religion, both of which have encouraged passivity and submission to her “fate,” while the protagonists in Trollope’s or Tyler’s stories of discontented marriage are drawing on ideas about self-realization and agency that seem–literally as well as metaphorically–foreign to her. As I neared the end of Brick Lane, I thought I knew where we were going, especially as Nazneen became increasingly sympathetic, even affectionate, towards Chanu, and distanced from Karim: she and we were turning away from experiments in re-visioning and rewriting her own story, back to acceptance of the life she already lives, of the strength and shape of its architecture, to use Smiley’s image. But to my surprise and pleasure, Nazneen does not resign herself to the life she never actually chose. Neither does she choose a new life with Karim, an option which seemed insubstantial and improbable right from the beginning of their affair. Nazneen chooses uncertainty, a story without a known outline, with an indefinite shape, so that the ending of the novel is really a new beginning: “‘This is England,’ [Razia] said. ‘You can do whatever you like.'” Treated differently, her story might have been more polemically and politically charged, but (in part through using limited omniscient narration, which keeps us mostly within Nazneen’s own tamped-down consciousness) Ali keeps these possibilities at a slight distance. Still, there’s no doubt that the novel comes down on the side of a woman’s right to (or need for, if there is a relevant difference) self-determination and agency. How different, really, is Nazneen’s dilemma from Dorothea Brooke’s, as Dorothea too is hampered in her imagination and her desire by history and culture, by who and when and where she was born, and into what expectations? Like Dorothea, Nazneen struggles to articulate her dissatisfaction and then to see her way through them to a happier alternative. In the end, she rejects what she cannot tolerate and yet remains tolerant; in fact, it seemed to me as if her liberation from her life-long passivity freed her to be generous, especially towards Chanu.
There are many more aspects of this novel that deserve more thought and commentary than I can spare (summer teaching obligations intervene!): the interweaving of Nazneen’s story with her sister Hasina’s letters, which (among other things) throw Nazneen’s more abstract struggles into relief and inhibit any nostalgic tendencies she (or we) might have regarding the world she has left behind; the story of Nazneen’s mother, who did not, could not, accept her own life; the unsentimental and nuanced depiction of the ideological conflicts and confusions in Nazneen’s Muslim community; the portrayal of Chanu, with his endlessly futile optimism and equally prolific but pointless scholarship; the delicate use of ice skating to provide an image, for Nazneen and thus for us, of what she wants but can barely imagine. There were times when I wanted more overt emotion from the novel–I wanted Nazneen to break free and thus free up the narrative from its veiled tone, to look more aggressively at the world. I wonder, though, if that sense of being kept one step back from the action and the emotion isn’t meant to generate just such a feeling, so that we end up feeling, with Nazneen, that life cannot be lived at one remove.