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Louisa May Alcott – Little Women

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Please note that this is a commentary of what is sometimes referred to as Little Women Part One. Part Two, also known as Good Wives, will be discussed in a separate post.

Playing the part but not without diversions.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Children’s
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1868
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

The four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their mother – are living in relative poverty; their father had been let down by people whose businesses he had invested money in. Now it’s Christmas, and Mr March is serving as a chaplain in the American Civil War. As the girls look towards a lacklustre season and future, their mother reminds them of what they do have – a home and each other – and as time goes on, the four take it on board and live life to the full, making friends with the boy and his grandfather next door, working for money, and loving each other.

Little Women is a book of family, hope, and love, and all those wonderful things we still long for today.

Looked at in the context of our 21st century, it must be said that the book is fairly low on content. Alcott herself disliked some of the book, which she had written under pressure from her publisher1; her publisher also found the first chapters very dull and it was only after a young girl read the book, and following this the manuscript was passed to others, that it was given the go ahead for publication (Wikipedia, n.d. a). After this it became a bestseller and Alcott was asked by readers to finish off the story which she did swiftly – hence Part Two. (Perhaps the pressure was the reason Alcott chose to make the book semi-autobiographical. Little Women is based on the author and her sisters: Alcott is Jo – her life, personality, and the language of her letters are very similar to that of her character’s – and Amy her artistic sister May who became well-known; thus it was likely very easy to write. Certainly a lot of both Little Women and Good Wives mirrors her life – some things she writes about as the experiences of the others were in fact her own experiences2.)

The book is a little difficult today. The most obvious issue is the sugary sweet nature of it, what we might think of as too goody-goody and overly wholesome, but a full reading shows off the moral values that we don’t adhere to so much any more. Whilst the love of family and being kind within the unit are still very relevant, the wish for girls to be interested in house and home beyond all else has largely become a thing of the past, and therefore in a way, it is far better to read this book as a product and example of its time than it is anything else; this is to say that the values it promotes for children, particularly girls, are often irrelevant, some even potentially harmful as we move away from the idea that women should be polite and modest beyond all else; thus it may no longer be wholly appropriate for the target age it was written for, but an older child and adult readers will appreciate the novel for what it is. (Children can of course still read it, but support of parents in terms of questions they may have will be required for many and would be beneficial for reasons above and beyond questions of morality.) We should perhaps look to a near-contemporary opinion of the book for guidance: editor Ednah Cheney noted in her commentary that ‘One of the greatest charms of the book is its perfect truth to New England life. But it is not merely local; it touches the universal heart deeply’ (Cheney, 1889, p. 190).

And Cheney is right about its charm; the use of place, albeit that most often scenes take place in only one or two houses, is lovely. Rather like the Anne Of Green Gables series in terms of life on Prince Edward Island in Canada (a book that was published just less than half a century later), Little Women shows well life for the average person in New England – Concord, Massachusetts, to be exact, if we trust that Alcott’s hometown is the setting. It introduces us to the general atmosphere of the place and the diversity of society in its next door neighbour set up of a newly poor family residing beside a rich one, and the way Mrs March visits the homes of families who are even worse off than her own. As well as this, despite the fact that it could be something not so much universal as simply important to Alcott, the book shows the humanity and humility in charity, helping those worse off than oneself, putting others ahead of your own comfort. This is where Amy, otherwise a bit frivolous and vain, shines, adding a subtly to Jo’s more obvious acts of kindness.

Where the domesticity and general life goals of the March family do not match with us today, there is a bright light in Josephine. Alcott’s writing of Jo as a personality match for herself means that Jo’s independent nature and dreams for her future have more relevance than before; Jo is known for having inspired girls of the time, with Alcott providing both the social norm of domesticity and an instance of the value in having individual identities3 but our present day wider acceptance of female agency, and our drive for it, makes Jo perhaps the most resonant character for all. And the slight to moderate gender nonconformity (it’s hard to say exactly how much due to Alcott’s limitations) has surely more worth today than ever before, bringing in new conversations that would have been unthinkable in Alcott’s time (though quite possibly welcomed by the author if they could have happened).

Continuing on that positive note and offering a reversal of something that has already been said, the quietness, that lack of action and the dull quality that Alcott and her publisher found – as much as it’s a drawback it is also a major highlight of the book. The relative solitude of the family and their limited times away from home does well to remind us of the value to be found in a more laid-back way of life – or just a laid-back few days. Time full to the brim with busy-ness and travel is excellent, but a ‘staycation’, to use an instantly-recognisable example, can be just as wonderful if for very different reasons. There are treasures in life’s monotony.

It is due to this that Alcott’s lack of any plot – in its formal terms – and her concentration on characterisation and conversation over all else works. The everyday hobbies of piano playing and games of make-believe are enjoyable to read. And as much as some of the traits of the characters can be difficult – anyone who has worked for weeks or months on a hobby could be forgiven for feeling that Jo is hard done by by the author in the episode of Amy’s revenge – they slowly work their way into your heart.

The book-about-books factor is omnipresent. A fan of Dickens and other authors of her time, Alcott peppers her work with references both obvious and, to our time almost 200 years in the future, more vague. (Of Dickens the references are particularly plentiful and to no surprise – Alcott and her friends made a point of seeing the English author on stage when in Europe4 – however the novel also pays a fair debt to Puritan writer John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, including the book as an item the girls own that they use in their favourite imaginary games. Away from the Bunyan, the various book references span centuries and include both timeless classics and bestsellers of the day.

It wouldn’t be wrong to speculate that with the continued passing of time, Little Women will inch towards being viewed less for its story and more for its great value in terms of the history it includes of time and place, the further movements towards gender equality and female independence and choice, the extremely detailed information it offers on the life and opinions of its author, and the slight material on the trends in publishing at that time, which when placed beside Alcott’s letters and journals is a vast amount5. Certainly questions already abound the Internet as to the suitability of the novel for children – especially girls – in terms of content as well as language; you do have to be on the ball and in the know if you’re to catch the various references that will give you a better idea of how a reader in the 1800s would have understood and received it.

This book has never been out of print and it’s not hard to see why. Suitably ending with a note that suggests the not-so-neatly-tied threads can be undone for another book if the reader so desires, and with all its morals and background, its purpose was achieved and then some. It may not tick every literary box or every reader box today but it ticks more than enough of them. It is fun, it is sweet, and for all the reliance on Alcott’s particular Christian denomination, its lessons are of worth to all.

A note on the religious aspect: the debt owed to The Pilgrim’s Progress pervades the book (even the chapter headed ‘Vanity Fair’ is more about a place in Bunyan’s novel than it is Thackeray – ‘more’ because Alcott liked Thackeray, too, and Thackeray’s own use of the name was due to Bunyan). As much as Little Women isn’t called a Christian book, it well could be, however it’s more along the lines of The Lord Of The Rings than The Chronicles Of Narnia, the religion there for the taking if you have the wish or knowledge – it’s a long way from being pushed on you.

Footnotes

1 In her edited collection of Alcott’s journals and letters, published in 1889, Ednah Cheney includes this entry:
“September, 1867 – Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girls’ book. Said I’d try. … Began at once on both new jobs; but didn’t like either.”
The editor follows this up with a commentary: ‘…in May, 1868, they [the publishers] repeated the request through her father, who had brought to them a collection of short stories for publication. Miss Alcott’s fancy had always been for depicting the life of boys rather than girls; but she fortunately took the suggestion of the publisher, and said, like Col. Miller, “I’ll try, sir.” The old idea of “The Pathetic Family” [this appears to be her description of her own family] recurred to her mind; and she set herself to describe the early life of her home. The book was finished in July, named “Little Women,” and sent to the publishers, who promptly accepted it, making Miss Alcott an outright offer for the copyright, but at the same time advising her not to part with it. It was published in October, and the result is well known. She was quite unconscious of the unusual merit of the book, thinking, as she says, the first chapters dull, and so was quite surprised at her success. “It reads better than I expected,” she says; and she truly adds, “We really lived most of it, and if it succeeds, that will be the reason of it.”‘(pp 186, 189-190)
2 Louisa travelled to Europe, seeing all the sights she would later ascribe to another sister/character.
3 Wikipedia (n.d. a) says, with a quotation from Alcott scholar Joy Kasson: ‘In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles as social constructs “as class stratification increased”.’ The page continues, quoting Barbara Sicherman: ‘After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”, however dependent on other factors such as financial resources. While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities.’ These comments cover both Parts of the book combined into one – it could be argued, considering the notes about dreams and possibilities, that they are most relevant to the second, but this is not exclusive.
4 ‘Went to a dinner-party or two, theatres, to hear Dickens read, a concert, conversazione and receptions, seeing English society, or rather one class of it, and liking what I saw.’ (Alcott, 1866, in Cheney, 1898, p. 183)
5 Good Wives unarguably takes the publishing trends and readership information a lot further, resulting in a fair overview of the time.

Book References

Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1889) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) Little Women, accessed 4th July 2019
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) The Pilgrim’s Progress, accessed 3rd July 2019

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Birgit Vanderbeke – You Would Have Missed Me

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They certainly might have.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 114
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90867-052-6
First Published: 2016; 15th June 2019 in English
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2019
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Ich freue mich, dass ich geboren bin (I am glad, that I was born)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Birthday number 7; a kitten is still wanted but won’t be coming, mother still brings up her wealthy ex-fiancé, and father remains emotionally distant. As does mother. As the days move on our young narrator talks about her life as a new resident of West Germany where life is plentiful but, for her, still troubled. She misses family friends, struggles to understand house rules, and would like it if her mother let her have a drink more than twice a day.

You Would Have Missed Me is a novella written in the style of a stream of consciousness. A semi-autobiographical work, the book shows the realities of everyday life in 1960s Germany (both sides), and the further realities of life for a child whose parents could be a lot better.

The narrator works through her past, wrapping memories back around every so often, showing the impact of a life of neglect on the psyche of a child. The affect of this neglect, and outright abuse – both emotional and physical – causes problems for the girl who isn’t yet fully able to understand what is going on; she has a fair idea, but there is a lot more for the reader to pick up from the subtext of what Vanderbeke is saying. The abuse is accounted for very slowly, dripping through the narrative.

The differences between East and West Germany are shown often, mostly as items and social mores in the background. In the context of the narrator’s childhood life, the particulars are obviously more noticeable than the general, political, aspect, but there are moments when these are covered enough to clue you in to the wider social contexts. Sometimes the parents’ insults can seem to meld with the standards of living – it’s worth having a quick read up on the intricacies of life in Cold War Germany if it’s not a topic you know much about.

Between these strands, created by them, is the narrator’s fantasy of travel, escaping from everything that has happened in her life to somewhere better, if only for a moment. A snow globe, a gift from a friend in the East who knew a lot about the world, and their later gift of a book she had been wanting to read, H G Wells’ The Time Machine, are key.

The age-appropriate prose has been translated by Jamie Bulloch, who has worked on a good few other Peirene Press publications. Bulloch has opted for a mix of general comprehension and word-for-word; the book both seeming to echo what is surely the original language whilst translating into the English emotional dialect, if you will, the few things that would not work so well, the end result a careful, wonderful, rendering.

As a slice-of-life story that nevertheless recounts a lot of details on a specific few themes, You Would Have Missed Me is very character-driven, almost topic-driven, and whilst it does have an ending, there is a fair amount left for you to decide; the narrator’s story is only on year 7, and so there is plenty of scope to decide the likelihood of the various directions her life could go in regards to the personality she presents you, and how much her fantasies of better places are a part of it (looking at the book as a work of fiction). This is a book about the impact of the Cold War on the general public, and of an upbringing on the rest of someone’s life. It’s difficult to read, it’s sometimes shocking, but it’s a good dose of reality, history, and things that still today need improvement.

I received this book for review.

 
Dolly Alderton – Everything I Know About Love

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…And indeed the things scribbled out.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 358
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-98210-5
First Published: 1st February 2018
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Dolly had a privileged upbringing, living in the suburbs north of London. As she becomes an adult, life changes; in a number of non-linear chapters she tells us the stories of her twenties from the early days to her thirtieth birthday, the drinking, partying, drugs, sex, that in the course of time led to her maturity and growing wisdom. And throughout it all she chronicles her friendships, the steadfast women who have helped her through the rough times, those whom she has helped in return.

Everything I Know About Love is Alderton’s first book, a memoir bringing us to her present day (the paperback includes a new chapter). Most often a love letter to female friendship, the book includes romantic love but more often short relationships – Alderton has said that we think so much about the spark that keeps romance going but that we don’t spend enough time on our friendships in the same way. A journalist, writer for television, and podcaster, Alderon’s book also includes the early days of her work in the industry, the backdrop of many escapades.

Alderton begins her book with little introduction; most likely the book will appeal to those already familiar with her work and thus this won’t be a problem. However, to anyone who may otherwise be interested (as I was, having heard her speak at a festival) this is a work that can grow on you – the first chapters may be difficult, lacking in detail, but you soon become familiar with the writer enough that the ‘requirement’ to know about beforehand becomes a lot less important. More to the point is the ability to relate to her childhood – Alderton acknowledges the privilege herself on various occasions – the attendance at a boarding school, and relative ease of access to the places she begins to work (for example she gets a placement on a TV show with no details included as to how); again, though, there is a however – as the years pass and she has to network and so on, there are more details of this kind included. The details by themselves may not affect every reader but will help a good number.

The writing is casual and the pages fly by. It’s conversational, Alderton preferring ease of understanding over perfected prose. The content of the chapters tends to be compiled by subject matter rather than timeline, leading to a slice of life effect, however it’s not hard to find your bearings in any given set of pages.

Alderton is adept at imagery, and you become well-versed in her friendships over the course of the book; she’s also good at making it easy to keep track of who’s who – the book has a large cast of characters with enough detailing and stories to remember. You start wanting to hear more about some people and, obviously allowing for the natural changes that will affect it, Alderton’s choices in narrative correspond to this.

A lot of Alderton’s experiences in adulthood are average, very everyday – this is where her concept for the book and her stories of her friendships comes in. She includes some moments of her life that have impacted those she loves more than they impacted her, making a fair amount of the book about others rather than herself (this sounds against the idea of a memoir and may not always be apparent when reading, but it’s true). There are some stories of particular depth and heart in them. One person in Alderton’s life was Florence, her best friend’s sister, who sadly died of leukemia before she entered the excellent adulthood that was clearly awaiting her – Alderton has dedicated her book to Florence as well as a whole chapter that looks at Florence’s early achievements, the love of her family, and the ripple affects of her death. The writer includes an extract from an article Florence wrote that contains this fantastic piece of advice:

Be the person you wish you could be, not the person you feel you are doomed to be. (p. 203)

Amongst the various prose chapters are dotted recipes (skip-able), a chapter of silly or drunken text messages (also skip-able), lists of things learned (good to read), and some very on-the-mark pretend missives to groups of people (bridal parties and wedding guests, baby shower invitees) that show the reality behind plans made without self-awareness that often cause minor conflict. A paraphrased example: ‘please don’t feel you need to bring a present… but here is where we are registered… for expensive items’. These on-the-mark missives are pretty brilliant to read.

Alderton’s awareness of issues naturally progresses as the book continues and she displays openly the problems as well as the changes made to fix them:

‘Why did you do it?’
‘I don’t know. To feel close to people? To make conversation? Maybe to feel powerful,’ I said. ‘That’s the only reason people gossip. I obviously did it to feel powerful.’ (p. 234)

The best part of the book is the last section, wherein Alderton ends her stories to write an extended reflection on what she’s learned. In a way, it’s a pity the stories end, but this is where everything comes together and you see just why she wrote the book and why people have been excited about it. Alderton puts into words things we often think about but rarely put into words ourselves. She gives a voice to things that are a part of many people’s lives that are things we don’t really think about (or think about at all). It’s a beautiful conclusion and makes more obvious the structure of the work. The only problem here is that the reflections go on a bit – whilst already a summation, the content is repetitive and could have done with more editing.

Everything I Know About Love might not look like it’s a book for the many, but it is. It’s a book with a lot of good advice, a book that includes the low points and why things can be a problem whilst not suggesting those things be avoided (Alderton has said she wanted to talk about drink, drugs, and so on openly). Read it alongside a subscription to the magazines she writes for, or after a brief bit of research, and you’ll get the most out of it.

I received this book for review.

 
D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover

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Sex and industry.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: N/A (there are a few different editions)
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-141-44149-8
First Published: 1928
Date Reviewed: 29th March 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Connie married a baronet; now back from the war, Clifford is different, his newly-acquired disability changing their marriage. More to the point, however, Connie is becoming bored by him, his clique of quasi-intellectual friends, and the pomp surrounding his titled heritage. After a brief affair with one of the friends, and following a conversation in which Clifford suggested that it wouldn’t be bad if Connie became pregnant by another man so that the baronetcy could continue, Connie meets the her husband’s gamekeeper. Like Clifford, Oliver, too, was at war. His experience situated him somewhere in between the social classes. He is distant and cold, but Connie becomes attracted to him.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a novel of many themes. Most well-known as erotic fiction, the book also looks at class, and the progression of industry over traditional English life.

Lawrence has a lot he wants to say and it’s evident early on that his object is to make his opinion clear, and hopefully easy to emphasise with. Most often when detailing his thoughts – through his characters, looked at in a philosophical manner – he repeats words and phrases until the thought reaches an almost ‘post-‘ level of discussion. Perhaps he saw no other way to get his points across, to rail against the new norms of his day; it’s not hard to liken him to others who behoove their point in a literary manner.

What’s perhaps surprising is that industry is Lawrence’s biggest point, the sex taking second place in this regard. By Lawrence’s time the industrial revolution had reached a particular level; in this book we see the slow but sure change in social make-up, where those who were always rich were starting to sell off their inheritance. Lawrence – of a working class background, the child of a coal miner and a teacher – details the breaking up of estates, the land reused for cheap housing for those who do the literal heavy lifting. The author isn’t too worried, here, about the aristocracy – his sadness lies in rural life changing, in coal mines washing away the peace and beauty of the countryside; if more people had thought as he did perhaps we would have more historical estates remaining today.

The author uses his characters’ minds to spread his opinions. In this respect the book is rather like Anna Karenina – where Tolstoy spreads his thoughts on agriculture enough that his farmer, the rich Lenin, is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the author himself, so too does Lawrence use Connie and Oliver to ‘think’ his own thoughts. Had they been around at the same time, the two writers may have had much to debate.

In talking of industry and as a topic in its own right, Lawrence discusses the class system. He shows how class isn’t always easy to delineate – Oliver, a working class man, has two modes of speech, that of a high-ranking member of the British army, and the dialect of his home and background. Interestingly, Lawrence makes Oliver’s regional dialect the one that is secondary, or at least that’s the effect of it – it seems Oliver’s army English, which is similar to his employers, is now his default; Connie moans at him for speaking in regional dialect because she sees it as affected and not him; part of his character is his struggle between his different lived experiences.

Lawrence discusses the upper class, those with inherited wealth; he dislikes Clifford’s place in the world but is very lenient towards Connie. Connie’s background is somewhere between middle and upper class; in marrying Clifford she’s risen a level, enough that she’s far from Oliver in terms of society but not too high that Lawrence can’t use her for his ‘isn’t the countryside beautiful and industry is ruining it’ monologues. It is unfortunate that Lawrence uses disability – Clifford – as an easy way to justify Connie’s move away from him (though she does care about Clifford), but it is a reflection of the attitudes of the time.

Connie’s desire for sex, that which accompanies love but isn’t necessarily ‘making love’, is fulfilled by Oliver’s arrival in the story. The book is absolutely littered with sex scenes and other references to the act; there’s a reason the title is synonymous with sex and it’s difficult not to argue that despite the theme of industry, the sex shouldn’t be first and foremost in any discussion of the book. (I’ve included it last to subvert this.) Lawrence was not able to publish the book openly in Britain; the publication date of 1928 is the initial, private publication, and the date when it was seen in France and Australia. There was a court dispute in the 1960s; finally Penguin won the right to publish the work in its entirety, years after Lawrence’s death. The sex was still shocking in the ’60s, and it’s still somewhat shocking today. When it comes to these scenes, Lawrence’s phrasing is more poetry than anything else – at least that seems to be what he was going for, with his leaning towards purple prose; there’s a layer of dissociation to it as well. The scenes can verge on being philosophical, like the industrial musings. And it does verge on being too much, unnecessary; it’s both erotic fiction and surprisingly not sexy.

Part of this is down to that dissociation, the gap that exists between Lawrence and his characters. Whilst he writes from Oliver and Connie’s perspective, most often Connie’s, the text reads as though it’s the narration of someone watching and describing what he sees. And a lot of that is down to Lawrence’s writing of Connie herself. The general portrayal isn’t bad, in fact often Lawrence captures her well, but there are unfortunately occasions when he applies the male gaze to her thinking. That Connie thinks about sex in detail works. The way and the how, however, is sometimes at odds, so to speak. This in turn extends to her development as a character – she develops a trait that does not quite fit with who she is; it’s more about Lawrence moving the plot to where he wants it to be.

Lastly on this subject, there is a very minor LGBT element to the story, included in memories of the past. It’s not detailed – understandably, given the era – but it’s there, just enough that Lawrence could probably include it without question.

I haven’t mentioned plot – that’s because it’s very thin, a minor element. The story also doesn’t end in an expected way, instead Lawrence leaves you to decide exactly what happens, and whether or not that’s satisfactory depends on your thoughts thus far.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is both of its time and eternal, with its thoughts of changing times. The stereotype of the book is there for a reason and it’s not a book you can get lost in. It’s best in the context of its fame and publication, and as an eyewitness account and opinion of the era. As a historical document and example of various attitudes, it has a lot to recommend it.

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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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