(Carried in India Today, June 2006)
POUNDS 10.99, 299 pages
Monica Ali’s celebrated first novel was a troubling work—in a classic review in Biblio , Alice Albinia described walking around down the real Brick Lane in London and noting the complexities that never made it to the fictional Brick Lane .
The problem with her fictional world was not that it was inauthentic, to use one of the most annoying terms in the post-colonial dictionary, but that it was deeply unconvincing. Despite this, Brick Lane announced the arrival of an accomplished writer; Ali’s prose was so beautifully crafted that the novel rarely felt like the work of a first-timer.
Her second novel, Alentejo Blue , moves away from the contentious territory of Brick Lane to Mamarossa, an imaginary corner of the Alentejo in Portugal . Instead of the intense portraits of two or three main characters she offered in Brick Lane , Ali has a much wider canvas here. Café owners, earthy peasants, English tourists, expatriates in voluntary exile—all of them drift through the pages of the book in the same way as they drift through life in the Alentejo.
The inhabitants of Mamarossa share certain things: discontentment, apathy, an inability to move their lives forward, and an irritating tendency to speak and think in beautifully literary, inescapably banal platitudes. Vasco contemplates eating cake for three interminable pages while nursing the pain of losing his wife years ago, Joao contemplates the longevity of cork trees while holding on to the body of his one-time lover after Ruiz has committed suicide, Teresa contemplates losing her virginity before she does the unthinkable and leaves Mamarossa. Everyone waits for the mysterious Marco to show up, which is like waiting for Godot, only far less exciting—and when Marco does make an entry, he is not what he seems to be.
Ali hits all the marks in the manner of an expert pianist doing scales: this five-finger exercise in dutiful prose only briefly flashes into life with the story of an alcoholic expat writer. The collision between Stanton and the hilariously dysfunctional Potts family could have provided this rambling novel with some narrative force, but after introducing the only characters of substantial interest into Alentejo Blue , Ali yanks them offstage. The rest of the book is as desultory as the sex between Stanton and Chrissie.
The best use of Alentejo Blue might be as a manual for a creative writing class, since Ali covers all the bases from Landscape 101 to The Art of the Internal Monologue and How To Insert Historical Fact Into Fiction with élan, if not enthusiasm. It’s the neat, schematic structure of the novel that lets Alentejo Blue down. And it’s the insistence on making much of the small details of life and turning them into moments saturated with literary significance that makes reading this novel an exercise in quiet desperation.
This reviewer reached that point with great rapidity thanks to Vasco and his cake: after three pages of limpid prose on the empty hole inside that makes him want to eat “the small landslide of pastry” balanced against the remorse a fat man like him will surely feel at giving into his baser appetites, she found herself mentally pleading with the man: “Eat the cake, Vasco! Eat the cake and move on so that we can too. Please, just eat the goddamn cake.” I think he finally did, but thanks to Ali’s fondness for the ambiguous ending, I’m still not completely sure.