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.