Put in motion by rueful late-1960s emigrations, built from arranged marriages, and hurtling toward adultery and a new millennium, the debut novels by Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali both rattle with ethno-cultural collisions and clenched desire. Stretched taut by unbreachable divides, they also diverge in narrative distance: While Lahiri maintains a cool remove from her congenitally disappointed Ganguli family in The Namesake, Ali remains steadfastly by her protagonist’s side from the start of Brick Lane.
Lahiri’s title derives from the nomenclature of one Gogol Ganguli, whose father might have died in a train wreck as a young man in India had not the scattered pages of Gogol’s short stories attracted the attention of a rescuer. Gogol is a placeholder sobriquet for his firstborn that sticks, and proves for author and character alike a title of Babel—an index of deracination, ethnic schism, and free-floating anxiety. Irritable with his old-world parents (who settle near Boston) and guiltily resentful when he learns his link to Akaky Akakyevich’s tormented creator, Gogol trudges off to Yale, becomes Nikhil, and pursues various hollow romances. His whiny plight reads like a humorless cultural-studies abstract (as did snatches of Lahiri’s far less pedantic story collection, Interpreter of Maladies), but pathos stirs in the snapshots and suggestive elisions of the chasm between father and son. Lahiri permits young Gogol’s impatient disinterest in his dad while elegantly implying the elder man’s preternatural dignity and fecund inner life.
Like Midnight’s Children, Brick Lane (shortlisted for the Booker Prize) starts with birth and fate—but it almost doesn’t. Nazneen emerges bluely lifeless from her mother’s womb, to be revived quite by accident, and Ali’s novel endures a rocky naissance too—pounding out thesis statements about Nazneen’s “agency” and such in the first few pages before gracefully shedding its need to explain for a contentment to observe. At 18, Nazneen leaves her native Bangladesh for London and her new husband: 40-year-old Chanu, a hapless striver whose drooping stomach spills over matchstick legs. (Ali, like Lahiri, steals no peeks at the sexual life of the Arranged M, as Akhil Sharma does in An Obedient Father.) A dutiful Muslim wife, she cooks, cleans, and reproduces, keeping her eyes downcast when a more assimilated fellow Bengali scoffs, “Some women spend ten, twenty years here and they sit in the kitchen grinding spices all day and learn only two words of English.”
Nazneen is one of these women, but by Ali’s adroit hand, the door to her home opens onto infidelity, intergenerational strife, racial chafings and heroin infestation in the London neighborhood of Tower Hamlets, and nettlesome questions of how immigrant Islam and olde England can get along like cordial in-laws. Ali, who famously made the Granta decade list of young British writers before she had published a word, is a connoisseur of character tics—Nazneen’s hard-used friend Raza could sound the voice of reason in a Mike Leigh ensemble—but she also knows when to look away. After Nazneen suffers an unspeakable loss, the narrative slips into another gone world, glimpsed in pages and pages of letters, by turns ecstatic and desperate, from her beloved sister back in Dhaka.
Expecting her first baby, Nazneen finds her thoughts drifting during midday prayer when she realizes her forehead can no longer touch the mat. “What is wrong with my mind that it goes around talking of pregnant imams?” she chides herself later. “It does not seem to belong to me sometimes; it takes off and thumbs its nose like a practical joker.” Brick Lane dissolves the gendered false barrier between the social-political and domestic novel, often without ranging far from Nazneen’s cluttered flat and the pangs of her increasingly adventurous mind.