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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Brick Lane
In a special edition from the Hay Festival, Newsnight Review discussed Monica Ali's much anticipated first novel, Brick Lane.


(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

Brick Lane book cover
HARI KUNZRU:
It is a book about an immigrant, but the country she has come to is almost invisible. For most of the book, as she is living in this room, her husband goes out to work, she is living a very circumscribed existence. She is a person of hopes and dreams. That is Monica Ali's real strength. I enjoyed this book a lot. She manages to create the sense of somebody who's substance of her life is very thin. There is very little in her world. She is existing in her head.

GERMAINE GREER:
I think it is a really ambitious book. It tries to do all the jobs at once. That is just a bit too hard.

RACHEL HOLMES:
I'm with Hari. It works very much. It is a minute study of one person's slow patient progression to emancipation of emotional perdour. It is the small acts of rebellion that starts when she starts to slightly hang his trousers crooked on the coat hanger. From there, it moves through. I think the point of the novel in terms of the journey, is that the journey from Tower Hamlets council block to the streets on Brick Lane below is a much longer journey, in fact, than that from Bangladesh to London. That is what is interesting about this novel. It is more about modern Britishness than about the immigrant experience.

BILL BUFORD:
Maybe I read a different book! Well, I agree with Germaine. It is a very ambitious book. A first novel is a very precious thing. It is 120,000 words, two different worlds. It is addressing the issue of the immigrant community, racism. I wanted to feel indignant when it called for indignation and feel a sense of wrong when it called for a sense of wrong. I was just bored. I hate saying that. It's a very, very special thing when a first novel goes out into the world and it is launching a writers voice and launching a career. She definitely has talent, but I thought it was a good example of the pitfalls and dangers of the liberal novel. It has a good heart but a boring one.

RACHEL HOLMES:
You are putting all that apparatus around it, saying it has to be accountable for racism, for the immigrant experience.

BILL BUFORD:
No, no, no, not at all. No, I want to be entertained. I want to know why I'm spending many hours on a book rather than on another book. I knew where it was going. Nice scenes, great talent. The depiction of the Hamlet Towers marriage is very vivid. It sticks in my mind. But I just thought, oh, come on, get on with it. I'm very sorry. I want to like the book.

KIRSTY WARK:
You talk about the idea of the first novel. She is on the Granta list, of which you had a great hand in originally. She is on the Granta list as a star novelist just before she is published. Is that a poison chalice?

HARI KUNZRU:
She is being set up as this year's ethnic novelist. You are allowed one a year in Britain. I was last year's! Zadie Smith a year or two before.

KIRSTY WARK:
Your own publisher sets you up as that as well.

HARI KUNZRU:
It is very difficult for a publisher. The big Indian novel. Here is a publishing category that has fallen from the sky, with Salman Rushdie sitting on top of it, and ever since the early 1980's there have been a succession of big Indian novels. The very 120,000-word size of the book implies that it is in that zone. I think also, the other thing I would like to say is that it is a book that runs slap bang into September 11th in a very, very complicated way for its writing. I imagine she was part of the way through making this book When it happened. If you're writing a book about the position of Muslim people in British society you have to deal with it. It is almost an impossible task for somebody. Writers bring news, but, really, trying this on-the-fly interpretation of something that hasn't shaken out yet is hard. I disagree with that, I wasn't bored. I was very amused by a lot of the scenes in the book. I thought it was a subtle observation about a lot of things. Where I had a problem, is that it goes down the worm hole of September 11th and feels its need to explain.

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