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.
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.