by Monica Ali
When you begin Monica Ali's first novel, which catapulted her on to the Granta best young British novelists list before it was even published, you might be forgiven for feeling that the fuss has been a little overstated. The first chapter, with the birth of our heroine, Nazneen, her survival against the odds and her preparation for an arranged marriage to a Londoner are trundled through without much individuality. In her rather predictable portrait of life in Bangladesh, Ali uses forgettable images. Nazneen's mother "had been ripening like a mango on a tree". The midwife "was more desiccated than an old coconut". But Ali's talent is far greater than first impressions would suggest. She has a slow-burn style, a winning way of exploring how the contradictions of life gradually build and knit together into experience. Nazneen is not a finished person when she arrives in London as a bride for Chanu, and so it makes sense that Ali's prose style is, until that point, rather naive. But Nazneen is eager to grow up and Ali's prose grows with her, gaining in depth and complexity, gradually creating a compellingly subtle fictional world as Nazneen struggles to make a life for herself within her traditional marriage and the East End immigrant community. At the heart of the book lies a marvellous depiction of an adulterous affair. As a good Bengali wife, Nazneen does not enter lightly into her sexual adventure, and her lover, Karim, a fierce young Muslim who wants to radicalise the local community, has deeply held beliefs against promiscuity. But as Karim comes to Nazneen's house day after day, bringing her the piecework for her sewing job, Ali shows how the physical attraction that explodes between them destroys their moral expectations. She captures all the little details of Karim's attractiveness to Nazneen, from the citrus scent of his shirts to his eager energy when discussing politics, until, long before their first kiss, you have been...
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