Friday, April 15, 2005

The world of Nazneen

The lead character of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane is Nazneen, a girl who is suddenly transported in her teens from a village in Bangladesh to Tower Hamlets, London, after she is given in marriage to Chanu, a middle-aged emigrant now settled in England. Nazneen knows absolutely nothing about the ways of western life, or the language, and has to piece everything together bit by bit as she adapts to an unfamiliar and often disconcerting existence. In this passage early in the novel, she is seen going about her round of household duties when she is suddenly transfixed by something:

The television was on. Chanu liked to keep it on in the evenings, like a fire in the corner of the room. Sometimes he went over and stirred it by pressing the buttons so that the light flared and changed colors. Mostly he ignored it. Nazneen held a pile of the last dirty dishes to take into the kitchen, but the screen held her. A man in a very tight suit (so tight that it made his private parts stand out on display) and a woman in a skirt that did not even cover her bottom gripped each other as an invisible force hurtled them across an oval arena. The people in the audience clapped their hands together and then stopped. By some magic they all stopped at exactly the same time. The couple broke apart. They fled from each other and no sooner had they fled than they sought each other out. Every move they made was urgent, intense, a declaration. The woman raised one leg and rested her boot (Nazneen saw the thin blade for the first time) on the other thigh, making a triangular flag of their legs, and spun around until she would surely fall but didn't. She did not slow down. She stopped dead and flung her arms above her head with a look so triumphant that you knew she had conquered everything: her body, the laws of nature, and the heart of the tight-suited man who slid over on his knees, vowing to lay down his life for her.
"What's this called?" asked Nazneen.
Chanu glanced at the screen. "Ice skating," he said in English.

What is so good about this passage is the writer’s absolute fidelity to the character’s point of view. As readers, we may realise soon enough that Nazneen is looking at two ice-skaters, but that’s not the point of the passage – the point is to show us how this scene is understood by Nazneen, the cues from which she tries to decipher its significance. The satisfaction we feel at being allowed to experience Nazneen's misreading is the satisfaction of feeling in absolutely intimate contact with the worldview of another human being.

And indeed this is one of the paradoxes of fiction, one of the ways in which, while drawing from life, it sometimes actually improves upon life. As the writer William Boyd remarks in this essay:

Janet Malcolm […] says that "We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other." This, it seems to me, is the great and lasting allure of all fiction: if we want to know what other people are like we turn to the novel or the short story. In no other art form can we take up residence in other people's minds so effortlessly.

Monica Ali writes about her own early life in Bangladesh here. And John Mullan makes some very perceptive remarks about the language of Brick Lane here.

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