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Brick Lane, Monica Ali (2003)

Sort of like Good Times, except in London council flats instead of Cabrini Green, and everyone’s Bangladeshi instead of African American. The cast features all the types you might expect: a woman who everyone thinks is immoral but who’s actually good as gold; a woman who constantly professes piety but is actually a loan shark; the young Turk who wants to change the world; the little girl desperately embarrassed by her poverty; the good kid who gets hooked on smack; the neighborhood toughs; the always-dreaming, always-scheming, always-out-of-work father; and, at the center of the story, Nazneen, the young mother who just wants everyone to be happy, including, if possible, herself. Technically speaking, the novel is a bit clumsy in its larger architectures. Time is not handled well, for example: Ali will write patches of summary that make it seem like months have passed, but then you realize that it’s only been a few days. She (or, more likely, her editor) also insists on inserting big hints that Something Important is soon coming down the pike, as a way of compensating for the fact that there are large tracts in the middle of the novel that really don’t move the plot along at all. But these large-scale construction troubles are more than compensated for by Ali’s terrific detail work in scene after scene of subtle discovery among the characters. The complex pathos of Nazneen’s doofus/genius husband Chanu is rendered with particular brilliance; I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more fully realized three-dimensional fictional character. This novel could’ve stood a bit of trimming, but then they say that about Dickens. I’m probably wrong too, for the same reasons.

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