Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Book #41

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London's East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home.

Yet another novel I had high expectations of and have come away from underwhelmed and confused. I did enjoy the story, and I feel like I learned a lot about culture, however the plot was very weak, and I didn't fall in love with any characters. Falling in love with at least one character per novel is a requirement for me.

Nazneen, our protagonist, is as emotionless as they come. She wanders through her life as though she is practically brain dead, and even when the most emotionally gripping things happen to her she remains stoic. I couldn't fathom her out. She begins an adulterous relationship with a younger man and her feelings for him are described, but they are somehow metallic and meaningless. She is a still life painting; a hologram of life. I originally thought that she was portrayed like this to embody the oppressed nature of a Muslim wife, but this isn't the case. There are other Muslim wives in the novel who have so much more character. Towards the end of the novel, Nazneen begins to stand up for what she believes in, but even this just seemed alien and downright odd. I couldn't stop imagining her walking around with a perpetual poker face, regardless of the situation she found herself in.

I would have liked more from Nazneen based on the fact that she was uprooted from her home in Goripur and taken to London where everything is different. Other than a fleeting scene involving her bursting into tears over a bowl of cornflakes on the flight over, there was nothing in the vein of trying to fit in. I enjoyed Nazneen's memories from Goripur and really immersed myself into these. The difference in culture is so lovely to read, especially when there's jinns, talking birds, and exorcisms involved. I just wanted a bit more, a bit of comparison and contrast in Nazneen's blank canvas of a brain.

I particularly liked the letters Nazneen's sister sent to London from Dhaka. These were full of life, emotion and wonder. Hasina's life was far from perfect and she was not without her problems, but her letters oozed soul. I did have a problem, however, with the way these letters were written. Ali had Hasina write in broken English, and I couldn't understand why. Surely Hasina would not be writing to her sister in English? They both spoke Bengali, so I wasn't sure whether Ali was implying that Hasina was poorly educated or whether these letters had been translated into English by Nazneen. Neither of these outcomes make sense, and the thought irks me - are we to be looking down on Hasina?

The poltics and racial issues here are themes I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into, and learning from. I just couldn't. The planned marches, the riots, the looting, the fights; all of these just passed me quietly and they shouldn't have done. They didn’t make sense to me, and were poorly explained.

I am really disappointed in this. I had heard so many good things, and it really just wasn't what I was expecting. The ending was awful, cheesy, and really made me wonder what people have seen in this book.

41 / 72 books. 57% done!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Book #40

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Taken from the poverty of her parents' home in Portsmouth, Fanny Price is brought up with her rich cousins at Mansfield Park, acutely aware of her humble rank and with her cousin Edmund as her sole ally. During her uncle's absence in Antigua, the Crawford's arrive in the neighbourhood bringing with them the glamour of London life and a reckless taste for flirtation.

I am a huge fan of Austen, and have taken it upon myself to read every piece of her work I can get my hands on. Mansfield Park did not fail to disappoint me, and was filled with the humour, complexities, emotion and romanticism I have come to expect from her.

Most Austen novels centre around young women trying to find their feet in the complex social order of things in the 19th century. This is normally determined by marriage; a sort of snakes and ladders game in social circles. Our protagonist, Fanny, is a completely different breed from Austen's other heroines. She is extremely timid and moral, and is a stark contrast to Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. She is constant pillar of righteousness throughout the entire novel, whilst being surrounded by the shallow, the disrespectful, and the superficial.

Although this novel is greatly looked upon as a romance novel (as most of Austen's works are), I feel it is a lot more than that. Austen comments greatly on the social structure of the time, of the slave trade, of poverty, and most importantly of family. There is a message here behind almost everything, and it really is wonderful, and exciting!

There is a lot of hints here towards the argument of nature or nurture which are very interesting, and Austen explores whether or not your qualities are innate, or whether they are a result of the environment you are brought up in. She doesn't come to a definite conclusion on this one, but gives us a feast for our thoughts. (If anyone is interested, I haven't come to a conclusion on this argument either, and I am still sitting on the fence)

Austen also sets Mansfield Park - a haven filled with lovely people - in the countryside, and writes about the more urban areas, such as London and Portsmouth as filthy areas of vice and ruin. I loved this. I loved seeing such poverty in Portsmouth depicted as a life that Fanny had escaped, and I loved the contrast when she was finally summoned back to Mansfield.

I found the ending to be rather abrupt and rushed. Since it was the happy ending we were all hoping for, I would've expected it come with a certain coup de foudre. Unfortunately, it was a slowly but surely type of ending, which is more typical of life in general. The romantic in me was hoping for something more, but isn't this always the case?

I can never really bash out a good review on classic literature. I feel a bit humbled, and as though it isn't really my place to comment (a bit like Fanny Price, actually). However, this is quite the Austen novel, and if you're a fan I'd definitely recommend. Love triangles, materialism, charity, walking and talking in well-kept gardens, LETTERS! I loved it.

40 / 72 books. 56% done!