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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Author: 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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