Pleasantly light-footed, Monica Ali unravels the multicultural society

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You can say that Monica Ali peaked a little early as a writer. She was named one of the twenty best young British novelists in 2003 before even a word of hers appeared in print. When it happened a few months later, throughout the novel Brick Lane, that book was an instant hit and was promptly nominated for the Booker Prize. Ali was immediately at the peak of his fame.

Brick Lane told the story of Bangladeshi born and raised Nazneem, who is put on a plane to London at the age of 18. She has been married off to her compatriot Chanu, more than twenty years her senior, who is making unsuccessful attempts to become a part of the proud empire of the British capital.

Ali knew what she was talking about. She herself was born in East Pakistan (Bangladesh since late 1971) to a Bangladeshi father and an English mother. Her novel has been praised for its insight into issues such as immigration, the socio-cultural differences between the different populations of Britain and the sensitive subject of racism. At the same time, Bangladeshi Londoners complained about it Brick Lane painted a one-sided picture of their society. Literary scholar and feminist figurehead Germaine Greer also spoke sharply of the book: a caricature.

Perhaps it was because of that criticism that Ali turned to completely different subjects in his subsequent books. IN Alentejo blue (2006) she moved her area of ​​activity to Portugal, In the kitchen told the story of British chef Gabriel Lightfoot and Untold story (2011) was based on the assumption that Princess Diana faked her own death to start a new life in the United States.

null Statue Martyn F. Overweel

Statue Martyn F. Overweel

Reliable themes

After 2011, there was silence around Ali. She suffered from depression and decided to stop writing, convinced that she could not do it (anymore). Recent interviews show that she still hasn’t really regained her former confidence, yet has had the courage to start writing again in recent years. The result is her fifth novel, A love marriage (Love marriage), a book in which she returns to the theme of Brick Lane.

The central element around which this novel is built is the intended marriage of Yasmin Ghorami and Joe Sangster. Yasmin is a daughter of Bangladeshi parents. Thanks to his wife’s wealthy family, her father, Shaokat, has worked his way up from a poor village boy in Bangladesh to become a doctor in London and is extremely proud of it. The fact that his daughter is following in his footsteps and working as a doctor in a hospital makes him even more proud.

Joe is also a doctor, but his background – white, upper middle class – is completely different. He is the son of the famous and feared feminist writer Harriet Sangster. She has inherited the family capital and lives with her son in the posh neighborhood of Primrose Hill. Joe’s father, photographer Neil, lives near the Scottish border.

With the door in the house

In his book, Ali is pleasantly straightforward. We are on the eve of the first meeting between her parents and Joe’s mother in her beautiful Georgian home. Her parents, but especially Yasmin herself, are nervous. Yasmin’s mother, Anisah, has never really had British friends or colleagues as a housewife and therefore still has limited knowledge of the English language and culture. Yasmin worries that her mother will say stupid things and that her proud father will make a fool of himself (“Baba spoke correct English. Overly correct. It made him sound like a foreigner.”).

At the same time, she is nervous about Harriet, who does not hide her fanatical attitudes towards anything and everything. An infamous photo was once taken of her lying naked on her back with her legs spread wide and her head raised, looking defiantly into the camera. “A Feminist Image.” A book of hers has also just been published, in which she interviews men about their penises.

From the first sentence, Ali prepares the reader for the coming confrontation. ‘The Ghorami family never talked about sex. (…) When Yasmin first got her period, her mother had given her a packet of Kotex Maxi sanitary napkins and whispered that she must not touch the Koran. It was confusing, because Yasmin didn’t touch the Koran anyway, except at her mother’s insistence.’

Complex personalities

In a series of short chapters, Ali works towards the meeting, which will be different than the omens suggested. And thus a series of complications are set in motion, where the surprises follow each other, but above all, the personalities of Yasmin, Joe, Shaokat, Anisah and Harriet are unravelled. Personalities that are more complex, more searching and more troubled than they first appeared.

Ali tells his novel from a number of perspectives and through a myriad of storylines. You can say about both: maybe a little too much. But her character sketches are strong. Like in Brick Lane mockery and irony play a significant role. The formidable character Harriet, so liberal, so open-minded, so politically correct, so confident, so imposing, but also so hypocritical, sometimes – and presumably consciously – rubs against the caricature. Nineteen years later, it still appears that an outstanding has been settled here. With literature as the winner.

A love marriage is a light-hearted, occasionally humorous study of characters who turn out not to be who they thought they were, or pretend to be. That combination of lightheartedness and seriousness works very well. The classic adage ‘write what you know’ may have been regularly undermined over the years, but on every page of this novel you feel that the author knows herself in familiar territory and draws confidence from it. A love marriage is not back to square one, but a welcome home.

Monica Ali: A Love Marriage. Translated from English by Nadia Ramer. De Geus; 544 pages; €23.50.

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