ALENTEJO BLUE by Monica Ali (Simon and Schuster), 226 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Give Monica Ali a small break. Yes, Alentejo Blue is nowhere near as compelling as her debut, Brick Lane. But after such a high-powered and complex first novel, she can be forgiven for delivering this slim book. She's obviously still recharging. Here, the main character is a small village in Portugal, Mamarrosa, where expats have fled their first homes all over the world and feed their insecurities. We find out more about the village than we do about the characters, who star individually in only one chapter each. Occasionally, they turn up again as supporting players, but this is not one of those novels that weaves together what look like disparate plot lines at the end to make sense of it all.
In fact, there is no plot line. Barkeeper Vasco looks for respect. Sophie and Huw are about to be married - maybe. The Potts family, the town's equivalent to trailer trash, try to cope. Eileen can't talk to her husband about their son's gayness. Corrupt writer Stanton can't keep it in his pants. Mysterious Marco returns after acquiring a fortune. Every character has intriguing seed, but it never really blooms.
This is especially frustrating after a bravura first chapter detailing elderly homosexual João's traumatic encounter with the hanging corpse of his ex-lover. We want more and don't get it.
But Ali writes like a dream. Every so often you stop in mid-sentence to admire the prose. So while you're looking for more narrative development in Alentejo Blue, you also see why Ali is still considered one of the best writers working in English today.