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Monica Ali – Brick Lane

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Left To Her Fate.

Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60484-0
First Published: 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th March 2019
Rating: 3/5

At birth Nazneen was left to fate; she survived. As an adult she is married to Chanu, an older man, and leaves Bangladesh for London. She arrives to a burgeoning community of diaspora, the Bangladeshi population in Tower Hamlets laying roots and working to make a new life. But Nazneen is still leaving things to fate; as the world moves around her she watches; she is the wife Chanu wanted, she’s a friend to others, but she remains somewhat outside, as life continues.

Brick Lane is a novel about the life of an immigrant to London from the 1970s to the early noughties.

Ali’s lengthy book rests on the overall concept of fate, a story the younger Nazneen heard over and over again, called ‘how you were left to your fate’. As such, Nazneen does not often get involved with social events or even friendships when she could if she wanted to; the book is both a reflection of an immigrant’s experience, and the story of Nazneen’s particular life as affected by her mother.

This latter aspect means that Nazneen is a particularly passive character; away from the understandable case of isolation early on, Nazneen has ideas of things she’d like to do but never does anything about it. If this passivity is Ali’s way of writing cultural difference it could have made sense, but Nazneen is among people who are actively part of their local community, and whilst Chanu doesn’t teach her English and does expect the home kept nicely rather than encouraging her to be out and about, he involves her in his educational ideas, discussing neighbours and friends, and invites people over to socialise with them. Effectively, as much as Chanu doesn’t offer active support, it’s Ali herself who puts up the biggest barriers around Nazneen, creating isolation which in the context of the rest of the book is unnatural.

Chanu is an interesting character, at once compelling and utterly irritating. His story is of a potential success; he knows a lot – or, rather, he knows he knows a lot. He can do intellect, but moving forward from that and incorporating the opinions of others, is difficult; he does not get the jobs he wants and misjudges how others think of him. His personality and education means a lot of his dialogue is academic lecture – he’d be at his best in front of a room of students, though he might succeed in sending most of them to sleep.

With Nazneen being the character the book revolves around, there is little story and many dull pages. Due to Ali’s continual application of passivity, the moments that offer real promise are passed over almost as soon as they’ve begun. This is a problem because these moments are to do with conflict – the book’s timeline includes 9/11, the people on the estate are Muslim, and you hear enough from what Nazneen hears about to realise that if Ali had let her be a proper part of her community, like all the other characters, this book would have a lot to say. Where there is a bit included about rioting, most of what happens is missed out.

Nazneen’s life gets a bit more interesting when she meets the young man who brings her clothes to repair, but this is also short-lived and fairly unremarked-upon. That something happens between them doesn’t fit her character – perhaps it serves as a push against fate, but due to Ali’s construction of her personality, it’s effectively a contrived reversal of a contrived character. The ending of the book is what was needed, but coming so late in the day it’s difficult not to wonder whether it wasn’t simply a case of the author noticing she needed to do something with her story if she was to finish it.

The one area where the book is interesting is the letters Nazneen’s sister sends; in Hasina there is good story, and it’s sad that more wasn’t included because Hasina does not let fate run her life. (This is likely the point of the inclusion, to show difference.) It is told in a strange fashion, however, written in broken English when Hasina would have surely written to Nazneen in their mother tongue – and if it is the mother tongue Hasina is writing in, why would it be broken?

A potentially fascinating character and her family are given short shrift, the community seen only through her eyes and thus only seen vaguely, the knock-on effect of a major world event is not given the time it needed. There are plenty of books that cover the various aspects of Brick Lane to better effect.

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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Avonlea

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No longer just of the gabled house.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58265-6)
First Published: 1909
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Having decided to stay on in Avonlea, Anne prepares to become the new teacher of Avonlea’s school. Marilla goes to visit a distant in-law; with the lady on her deathbed, Marilla and Anne decide to help, and have her twins sent to live with them. Dora is quiet and good, but Davy turns out to be more trouble than Anne ever was. With new pupils at school, the forming of the Avonlea Village Improvement Society, and a new next door neighbour, there will be plenty to keep Anne busy while she continues her studies at home.

Anne Of Avonlea follows directly on from Anne Of Green Gables and is set in the two years following, ending with Anne at 18 years of age. Though a somewhat forced publication1, it reads as a well-planned sequel.

“Priscilla says Mrs. Pendexter’s husband’s sister is married to an English earl; and yet she took a second helping of the plum preserves,” said Diana, as if the two facts were somehow incompatible.

This book is, for many reasons, better than the first: the use of language is better; it’s got a strong comedic aspect to it; and, most importantly, it has a proper plot. Montgomery seems to have come into her own; she even breaks the fourth wall a few times.

The plot – well structured and nicely balanced between the predictable and the not so – fits together with the same use of community and spirit as before. Anne’s sense of purpose is well-defined, and in her role of teacher, Montgomery has the opportunity to create a plethora of new characters.

The new characters are super, especially the twins. Like Anne, you know they’re going to need time and patience. The humour from Davy is top-notch.

“Milty drawed a picture of Anne on his slate and it was awful ugly and I told him if he made pictures of Anne like that I’d lick him at recess. I thought first I’d draw one of him and put horns and a tail on it, but I was afraid it would hurt his feelings, and Anne says you should never hurt anyone’s feelings. It seems it’s dreadful to have your feelings hurt. It’s better to knock a boy down than hurt his feelings if you must do something. Milty said he wasn’t scared of me but he’d just as soon call it somebody else to ‘blige me, so he rubbed out Anne’s name and printed Barbara Shaw’s under it. Milty doesn’t like Barbara ’cause she calls him a sweet little boy and once she patted him on his head.”

As Anne is back home, we get to see more of Diana, and Gilbert returns often. (Suffice to say Anne uses his name in this book, and that promise of romance starts to lay down its foundations.)

Theodore White’s was the next stopping place. Neither Anne nor Diana had ever been there before, and they had only a slight acquaintance with Mrs. Theodore, who was not given to hospitality. Should they go to the back or front door? While they held a whispered consultation Mrs. Theodore appeared at the front door with an armful of newspapers. Deliberately she laid them down one by one on the porch floor and the porch steps, and then down the path to the very feet of her mystified callers.
“Will you please wipe your feet carefully on the grass and then walk on these papers?” she said anxiously. “I’ve just swept the house all over and I can’t have any more dust tracked in.”

So you’ve plot, excellent jokes, fabulous characters, and even some winning subplots. The only thing at odds is Anne herself. Anne’s talkative nature is subdued from the very first pages and Montgomery rarely pays it attention. Likely the reason for the change was down to that idea of growing up and maturing and in its day that probably worked; nowadays we’re more apt to question it. Technically the lack of talk (there is some, and there are some day dreams, too, just not many) means you can focus on the rest of the content, but the reality is you spend time wondering where Anne went. You might want her back.

Anne Of Avonlea is a wonderful book, and a lot more adult-orientated, but that does come at a price. Nevertheless it is still entirely worthy of your time; it’s surely one of the finest books of its day.

We make our own lives wherever we are, after all… college can only help us to do it more easily. They are broad or narrow according to what we put into them, not what we get out. Life is rich and full here… everywhere… if we can only learn how to open our whole hearts to its richness and fulness [sic].

Footnotes

1 Montgomery’s publishers had said that if the first book did well, she’d have to write sequels. In 1908 she wrote in a letter: “I’m awfully afraid if the thing takes, they’ll want me to write her through college. The idea makes me sick. I feel like the magician in the Eastern story who became the slave of the ‘jinn’ he had conjured out of the bottle.” In the next letter she sent, she calls Anne ‘detestable’ (Montgomery to Weber, 10th September 1908, and 22nd December 1908, cited in Lefebvre, 2013, p. 410).

References

Lefebvre (ed) (2013) The L.M. Montgomery Reader, Vol 1, University Of Toronto Press, Toronto

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L M Montgomery – Anne Of Green Gables

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Anne with an E – please remember that as without the E it sounds very different…

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult/Children’s
ISBN: N/A (Vintage Classics: 978-0-099-58264-9)
First Published: 1908
Date Reviewed: 5th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

When a friend says she’s going to adopt an orphan to help her at home, siblings Matthew and Marilla ask her to arrange for a boy to be sent to them so that Matthew can have help on the land. The day dawns; Matthew heads to the station to collect the child but finds only a girl – there’s been a mix-up. It’s too late in the day; with no way to send Anne back, Matthew takes her home to Avonlea. The idea is to get the mix-up sorted out, but the siblings find themselves becoming attached to the peculiarly-dressed, red-headed, eleven-year-old who rarely stops talking.

Anne Of Green Gables is a fairly short novel about the new life of a neglected orphan and the impact she has on those living in her new town. Set 30-odd years before it was written, and covering Anne’s first double digit years (she ends the novel aged 16), the book offers a good span of time to get acquainted with its colourful cast of characters, its likeable heroine, and its practically idyllic setting in semi-fictional rural Canada.

The first book in a long series, Anne Of Green Gables has for some time been considered children’s fiction, the publicity materials for it looking in that direction. The story does align with younger people, however it’s worth noting that Montgomery wrote it for all ages (Wikipedia, n.d.); there’s a lot here for adults that children may not necessarily appreciate, to the extent that whilst the plot might not be particularly compelling for older readers, the rest of it is. It’s never too late to read this book.

Thankfully, the plot itself is of little import, which is just as well because it’s effectively a cycle of similar events as Anne makes a mistake (or is thought to have made a mistake, given past events) and reacts to it. Montgomery was inspired by ‘formula Ann’ orphan stories of the time, which accounts for it all – her use of Anne, with that E, relates to it (ibid.), but whilst we may have moved on from being able to appreciate that context, there is much enjoyment to be had in the author’s characters, setting, and use of humour. Albeit that the mistakes do follow a formula, they are funny in their turn; Anne gives her friend a tumbler of alcohol instead of a child-friendly cold drink, and dyes her hair green.

“Don’t be very frightened, Marilla. I was walking the ridgepole and I fell off. I expect I have sprained my ankle. But, Marilla, I might have broken my neck. Let us look on the bright side of things.”

Anne talks, a lot. She day dreams, a lot. But she’s a pretty thoughtful and clever girl. Through her monologues, Montgomery shows well the psychological effects her previous neglect has had, and you see the slight changes over time. Looking at Anne from our present-day perspective, it’s reasonable to say she may well have had ADHD1. Learning is slow but sure.

So in Anne’s monologues there is real purpose, Montgomery using her chatty heroine to show so much; it’s an interesting way of getting around telling, as Anne is actually telling people things but as a character in a story, and with her young age and obliviousness, it becomes the very definition of ‘showing’. The promise of a romance to come is given via Anne’s skirting round the name of a boy, the value of friendship shown in descriptions and ideas, and the importance of dreaming very effectively explained even though the day dreaming in the book tends to hinder work. The relationships Anne has with her friends, with the older people of Avonlea she wins over, and even with those she doesn’t get on with, are wonderfully portrayed.

For Anne to take things calmly would have been to change her nature. All “spirit and fire and dew,” as she was, the pleasures and pains of life came to her with trebled intensity. Marilla felt this and was vaguely troubled over it, realising that the ups and downs of existence would probably bear hardlyon this impulsive soul and not sufficiently understanding that the equally great capacity for delight might more than compensate.

For the repetitive cycle of events, it can be hard on occasion to keep reading without wondering if it’s going to ‘go’ anywhere, but the positives do outweigh the negatives. Anne’s general positiveness is compelling, her tendency not to conform with social rules that create discomfort is satisfying… and it’s just impossible not to like her.

Footnotes

1 For an in-the-know discussion, see the ADHD subreddit thread: Anne Shirley Had ADHD In Anne Of Green Gables

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d.) Anne Of Green Gables, accessed 5th March 2019

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Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey

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Against the odds.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: December 1847
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

Heading towards poverty, and with a need to help her family, nineteen-year-old Agnes sets out to become a governess for the wealthy – people who had been her mother’s peers. In doing this she finds many awful moral codes, but she soldiers on, her desire to help and her hope in the good in people continuing.

Agnes Grey was Anne’s début, and is the more easy-going of her two novels. The book is an interesting mix of routine, mundane, content and highly satisfying theme work. It’s well-written and even during the low moments sports a hard-to-put-down quality. Anne takes a far shorter time to tell her tales than her more famous sisters, Charlotte in particular, and at least in the context of our present day it pays off. For this, Agnes Grey is also a lot calmer.

Anne covers a number of topics simultaneously, the most notable being the lifestyle and general attitudes of the wealthy seen from the position of a servant, and animal abuse; the book is largely based on Anne’s time as a governess, and the animal abuse included is unfortunately in context1. These aspects are very difficult to read at times; Anne details Agnes’ inability to discipline her charges due to rulings laid out by their parents, with the appalling result this has on their personal development. There are only two governess jobs in the book; Anne uses the second to show how all the wealth in the world doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, as she shows the affect of rose-tinted glasses on dreams that were ripe for the taking.

Agnes herself is an interesting character, being both winsome and somewhat unaware of herself. Her personality reflects the general purpose of the book, calm and informative, thoughtful, but there are occasions wherein she seems to misunderstand that people’s thoughts about her are in tandem with the way she comes across – she has a tendency to suggest people are, for example, snubbing her, without reflecting on what she did before that quite likely gave them to believe she wanted distance.

Religion is ever present, Anne’s devote faith in full force. However the use is temperate – it’s natural and devoid of any preaching, a simple aspect of Agnes’ character and understandably spoken of given Anne’s background. There is also a budding romance, nestled among the rest of the text in a way that means it’s important enough without crossing the genre line.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the value in the more philosophical aspects of the book. It is in Anne’s general thoughts, presented as Agnes’ musings, that the book is at its best, often transending time:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual evidence?

Likewise:

If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and visa versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

Agnes Grey is a stunning novel, in the sense of the words, what is said. It’s not difficult to see why it’s not as famous as the works of Charlotte and Emily – it’s far too calm and quite frankly far too considerate, though in a good way – but it’s worth its weight in gold.

Footnotes

1 In her biography of Charlotte, Gaskell recounts: ‘I was once speaking to her about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experience as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. We can only trust in such cases that the employers err rather from a density of perception and an absence of sympathy, than from any natural cruelty of disposition. Among several things of the same kind, which I well remember, she told me what had once occurred to herself. She had been entrusted with the care of a little boy, three or four years old, during the absence of his parents on a day’s excursion, and particularly enjoined to keep him out of the stable-yard. His elder brother, a lad of eight or nine, and not a pupil of Miss Brontë’s, tempted the little fellow into the forbidden place. She followed, and tried to induce him to come away; but, instigated by his brother, he began throwing stones at her, and one of them hit her so severe a blow on the temple that the lads were alarmed into obedience. The next day, in full family conclave, the mother asked Miss Brontë what occasioned the mark on her forehead. She simply replied, “An accident, ma’am,” and no further inquiry was made; but the children (both brothers and sisters) had been present, and honoured her for not “telling tales.” From that time, she began to obtain influence over all, more or less, according to their different characters; and as she insensibly gained their affection, her own interest in them was increasing. But one day, at the children’s dinner, the small truant of the stable-yard, in a little demonstrative gush, said, putting his hand in hers, “I love ‘ou, Miss Bront&euml.” Whereupon, the mother exclaimed, before all the children, “Love the governess, my dear!”‘ (Gaskell, 1857, pp. 189-190)

References

Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London

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