Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Paris, Nigeria, and Questions of Faith and Fate

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My daughter in 10th grade has been helping organize a high school dance called “An Evening in Paris.”   The student council settled on the theme last month, but it doesn’t feel the same after last week.  You know what happened in Paris, and I’m sure you also know that Boko Haram was simultaneously wiping out entire villages in northeastern Nigeria.

These events put me in mind of a book I read several months ago:  Monica Ali’s Brick Lane.

Brick Lane helped me understand what it might feel like to be a devout Muslim in the West – at least for one woman, in one set of circumstances.  It is the story of Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi girl sent to London to marry an older Bangladeshi man.  A dutiful daughter, she agrees to her father’s wishes and submits to a marriage she wouldn’t have chosen.  The novel traces the course of her life in London, where she raises two daughters, learns English and English ways – slowly – and eventually begins to spend time with a younger, charismatic man who leads a radical Muslim group in their community.  Brick Lane is a long, rich book that thinks about the immigrant experience; the Muslim faith; the effects of 9/11 on Muslim communities; and most of all, parenthood, marriage, and love.

In 2003, Brick Lane caught everyone’s attention, and I’m glad it finally caught mine.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named one of the year’s best books by 9 major publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.  If you’re in a book club, I’d strongly recommend it both for the power of the story and for the provocative questions it raises for group discussion.

Brick Lane asks questions about the intersection of “fate,” character, and free will, opening with two quotations in its epigraph.  The first is from Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev:

Sternly, remorselessly, fate guides each of us; only at the beginning, when we were absorbed in details, in all sorts of nonsense, in ourselves, are we unaware of its harsh hand.

The second is from Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

A man’s character is his fate.

As a young girl, Nazneen is told over and over the story of “How You Were Left to Your Fate.”  She was born dangerously premature and weak, but her mother refused to let anyone in the village seek a doctor.  Baby Nazneen hovered between life and death for days in her mother’s passive arms.  Growing up, Nazneen learns that “What could not be changed must be borne.  And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne.”  In London, she lives her life according to that same philosophy, but over time, she comes to question its validity.  Her journey from accepting what life gives her to making her own hard choices is halting and jagged and feels as real as anything I’ve ever read.

To what extent are our lives – and our very character – determined by the circumstances of our birth and early lives?  To what extent can we alter our character or “destiny,” whatever that is.  And does our character determine our fate, as Heraclitus asserts?

These are questions for Muslims, Christians and everyone else alike.  Ali’s novel feels both current and timeless.

12 Comments

  1. Fate winds its way around me

    Like a river wraps a field

    And floods my dying surface

    To nothing does she yield

    As she chooses she reminds me

    She is bigger wiser braver

    My arrogance a folly-nothing

    To her slightest glance or waiver

    The plans I made the stance I took

    Are nothing more than dirt

    Absorbed in her cool waters relieved

    Now from all of the work

    Of pushing and deciding

    of steering guiding ‘gainst the grain

    For now I float above her relieved from any pain

    She carries all those burdens which were made up and imagined

    They never held me as I’d thought there were demons as companions

    The seeds I’d planted swept away

    The furrowed field abandoned

    I float now high above these things

    With wings light and strong expanded

    It’s occurred to me that I am dead

    Akin to those enlightened

    My cares are gone my fears are quelled

    Of nothing am I frightened

    This place I go when I’m with you

    Where fate towers high, enormous

    The very thing I can believe

    And need not prove beyond us

    To see, to hear, to smell her

    Might happen any hour

    To know the other is alive

    Must suffice to prove her power

    She’ll take us where and when she likes

    Of this now I am sure

    And as I wrote long years ago

    Our love will still endure

  2. Can’t wait to read this as have been to Brick Lane several times from The City for a meal! Sounds like an excellent read.
    Betsy – the poem is perfection. Who is the author?

  3. Jennifer, this is an excellent review of an excellent book, and Betsy, I love the poem. Lots of deep thought on a rainy Monday morning! Does anyone remember reading “Invictus” in high school?

    It matters not how straight the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate,
    I am the captain of my soul.
    —William Ernest Henley

  4. Jennifer, really enjoyed this review and the comments. Have forwarded it to a friend in NZ to share with her book club.

  5. timely book indeed, J. and I wonder if B. herself wrote that poem…I remember it from one of her Artstormer posts…lovely.

  6. Great review and very timely, sadly. And re earlier question about Invictus – having gone to high school in Germany, we never read that, so I came across it the first time when watching the movie of the same name about Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s rugby world cup win in 1995. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, you should!

  7. Thank you so much, Sine! I will add the movie to our Netflix queue!

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