BRICK LANE by Monica Ali (Scribner/Simon & Schuster Canada), 369 page, $37.50 cloth. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
Booker loser Brick Lane is a win ner - easily the book of the year so far. Monica Ali's first novel tracks the life of Nazneen, sent to England from Bangladesh for an arranged marriage to Chanu. She leaves her sister, who fled her family and married for love, and bears two daughters, dutiful Bibi and rebel Shahana.
She arrives in London a simple village girl, unable to to speak English, but through a political and sexual awakening - triggered by her love affair with a local activist - starts going through changes that terrify her.
Ali paints a vivid picture of the Bengali Muslim community - its heartbreaks, its divisions, its struggle with gangs and drugs - as it goes through a sea change triggered by events including the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. This book conveys a sense of breathtaking urgency.
Ali also knows how to get inside the head of someone who's deeply conflicted, which creates an unusual intimacy between Nazneen and the reader.
And Chanu, Nazneen's husband, is a fascinating and complex character. Ali's skills as a novelist are most obvious here, as Chanu grows from unlikeable patriarch with a bureaucrat's soul to a man honestly aching for his national roots and his dignity.