This Reading Life

In some respects, it’s been a depressing week. Why? Well, I’ve hit a tranche of dodgy books. You know how it is. You get half way through a book and decide that it’s very poor. So you skip to the next in the queue, and that one turns out very poor too. Then you skip to the next, and the next, and, before you know it, a week has gone by without any good reading. For me, that’s a wasted week, and makes me sweaty.

Monica Ali’s Brick Lane

A huge disappointment, this one. As a rule, I try to avoid hype, but I could not help but read the scintillating book reviews and witty interviews. So when I saw this book in a charity shop a few weeks back, I picked it up for a reasonable price. Now I want my fifty pence back. How can I describe my reaction to this book? It’s a feeling of disappointment mixed with disbelief and, frankly, shock. On several levels the book is adequate – short sentences, only five or six typos that I could spot, and humdrum conversations that are often revealing – but I could not escape the mediocrity of the work. It contains virtually no artistic flair. There’s no rule that says a book must exhibit virtuosity, of course, but I can read dishwater-dull prose of this calibre every day in any given newspaper. The sentences in this book feel like they’ve been submitted to a committee and changed by vote until they are smoothed into weathered, pointless structures – whose subject tends to be minutiae. Again, nothing wrong with minutiae, particularly when these things – cutting a husband’s corns, washing the children in Fairy Liquid – build to delight the reader, but this doesn’t seem to happen.

Another problem is a conscious anti-narrative force. The first half of the book is constructed in the manner of a memoir from a person whose life is not interesting enough to be put into book form; and this person has failed to apply the natural remedy to this force, which is narrative. There are genuine moments of anguish (e.g. the scene where the new-born baby is taken for washing, and readers of the book will know what I mean) but these are often stifled by bizarre cuts to an epistolary section bursting with letters from a character in whom the reader has zero investment and, therefore, doesn’t really care about. When this section ends – blessedly, because the erastz ungrammatical Bangladeshi is wearing – Ali breaks the first rule of writing (write) by jumping ahead by several years. So the impact of a climactic scene is deleted from the narrative. Why? I just don’t know; I only know that if the scene was included, the book would have been strengthened. This peak scenes should be a mountain range across which the story is strung – on the proviso you want to grip the reader. You can avoid these scenes if you wish, but, so doing, I think you run the risk of rendering your story impotent. From there, the only thing that will keep the reader interested will be, perhaps, your scintillating (I know; word of the week) style or your astounding insights. When you have neither of these, your book is in trouble. The trouble reached a crescendo for me around the middle of Brick Lane, when a new character was introduced who would invigorate the story. In pencil, I wrote, ‘This is where the book should start’, and closed it forever – gurning with rage. OK, not gurning with rage, but disappointed. Overall, the book is adequate and undemanding, and I can see why some readers would like it. But it left me drowning, and solid ground appeared only when I opened Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian and read the first sentence. Phew. Rescue.

I’m so exhausted by this review that I won’t even get started on Nick Hornby‘s How to be Good. My spleen hath runneth over enouth for one day.

Later, after breathing into my special paper bag

Reading this post a second time, it does sound as though I paint Ali as some kind of literary criminal who breaks into houses and urinates on bookshelves. Well, I don’t. Apparently, she’s a very nice lady, and one of her interviews made me laugh. But when I read her book (to the halfway point) I learned a valuable lesson that, while obvious, bears repeating: don’t believe the hype. Just because an author ‘gives good interview’, that doesn’t mean she can write a book to match. As for the glowing reviews of Brick Lane, these can only add to my growing sense that reviews – including this one, natch – might be better destroyed, gathered into a smouldering pile, and destroyed again.

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Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

5 thoughts on “This Reading Life”

  1. Oh darn it, Ian. It is my birthday in a couple of weeks and my poor family persist in asking me what I want though I really wish they wouldn’t, as all I want is books and I already have 300. Anyway, in desperation, I suggested the Hornby as it has recently come out in pbk and I’ve quite liked his others (though gave 31 songs a miss).
    Now you imply it is so bad it isn’t even worth a review. Oh sigh.

    (My Dad aged 80 really enjoyed Brick Lane. Malcolm has it on his reading pile, but a nicer cover than your thumbnail if I may be so bold. It is a white cover with the words BRICK LANE in rainbow capitals — pushing the message home somewhat?)

  2. Who knows, Maxine, maybe you’ll love it – lots of other people did. Maybe I’m just in a funny mood. The Hornby book was better than Brick Lane, I think, though generally disappointing. I’d be interested to know what you think.

  3. My wife had pretty much the same reaction to Brick Lane. I don’t, meself, read new novels on grounds of hype-avoidance, though I glanced at the first page and noticed that the book should have begun with the second sentence, not the first.

    I’ve been working as a bookseller since 2000, and one of the things I’ve come to realise is that anything can get a good review. Incidentally, there are – or were – about four books out there with “‘A tour de force’ – Will Self” on them. I’m convinced he puts the phrase into every review, simply to see if the publisher will use it yet again.

    It’s the prose, or the story. Nothing else counts.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Silver Eel. I’ll be sticking to the tried and test authors (e.g. Mitchell) for my holiday in Croatia. Great blog, by the way.

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