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Monica Ali changes course with a surprising new novel
"You didn't ask the question everybody else seems to be asking," Monica Ali says at the end of our conversation about her second novel, Alentejo Blue. In less than a minute, Ali must leave her home outside London to fetch her son and daughter, ages seven and five, from school. Ali's writing day is defined by her children's school schedule, but today the school has agreed to keep them an hour longer so she can take a call from BookPage.
"Everybody wants to know after the big success of the first book, how I feel about the second book coming out," Ali continues. "I hate being asked that question."
Oh, the sophomore jinx question. "I'm anxious to see the reaction to the book," is all that Ali will say at the moment. And frankly? As far as Ali's Alentejo Blue is concerned, the question is moot.
Monica Ali's widely and deservedly praised first novel, Brick Lane (2003), told the story of a community of Bangladeshi immigrants living in public housing in London's East End. Based on its almost Dickensian narrative energy, its graceful writing and its deep compassion for its characters, the novel became a bestseller and was a finalist for the Man Booker and Kiriyama prizes, among others. Ali, who was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and came to England with her Bangladeshi father and English mother in 1971 when she was three, was named as one of the 20 best young British novelists. She was hailed, along with such novelists as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, as one of an exciting group of young writers giving voice to the new multi-ethnic, multicultural Great Britain.
So the first big surprise of Ali's beautifully written new tour de force is that it is set in Portugal. Alentejo (roughly pronounced: Al en TAY zha) is a farming region of Portugal. "The particular region I'm writing about is the poorest area, very rural, where the major industries are cork oak production and wheat. It's a beautiful area of unspoiled countryside," she says. The "blue" of the book's title refers to the vibrant blue paint residents use to outline the doors and windows of their whitewashed farmhouses.
"I'd planned to write a completely different book, set in London and in the north of England," Ali says. But for some time she and her husband, a management consultant, had visited friends who owned a house in Alentejo, and eventually they also bought a house there, where the family now spends summer holidays. "When I would sit down at my desk in London, I would still have all these images and thoughts of Portugal, and stories and characters kept inserting themselves into my mind. I resisted for a while. I was a bit annoyed because I'd planned something else. I never really bought the idea that the material chooses you rather than you choosing it, but it turns out that it does. This was presenting itself to me, and the obvious thing was to go ahead and write it."
The second big surprise of Alentejo Blue is the range of characters and points of view Ali is able to convincingly and movingly inhabit. In Brick Lane, Ali clearly demonstrated her great understanding of human nature, but here she takes that understanding to new heights. She writes from the perspective of young and old, women and men, tourists and old-time residents. It is an astonishing performance.
"I had a sense of quite deep satisfaction with what I was doing," Ali says of the composition of the novel. "I felt that I was flexing a sort of writing muscle. I was challenging myself, and I enjoyed the challenge of getting into all those different heads."
The social center of Ali's fictional village of Mamarrosa is Vasco's café. Vasco, a surprisingly graceful, extraordinarily fat man, who takes great pride in the fact that he learned his trade working in restaurant kitchens in Provincetown, Massachusetts, is the comic centerpiece of the novel. Vasco's thematic counterweight is the aged farm laborer Joao, whose lonely presence casts the shadow of the region's history throughout the rest of Ali's narrative.
Into Vasco's café traipse a host of dreamers and sojourners, each of them waiting or hoping for something. Among these are a young British couple, wandering through the countryside on holiday while they try to figure out if they love each other enough to get married; the wildly dysfunctional Potts family, who left England just ahead of the law and live in fetid squalor at the edge of town; a young, dutiful local girl, Teresa, who is planning her escape from the village; and Harry Stanton, a blocked writer trying to finish his book while managing to distract himself by drinking and chasing after the Pottses.
Ali says she first thought she would write the book entirely from Harry Stanton's perspective. "But I realized that wasn't the right thing to do, because that character wasn't the driving impulse. The driving impulse of Alentejo Blue was the place itself. I soon realized that I would have to develop some kind of choral range in order to give voice to the character of that place."
And this is the real achievement of Alentejo Blue. While each character's story or vignette is wonderfully wrought, enthralling or moving, comic or tragic by itself, as they overlap and interweave, the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. A reader gets an ever-deepening sense of the rhythm and the soul of a landscape and of the people who are rooted there or are just passing through.
"I'm not expecting this book to do for Alentejo what A Year in Provence did for that region," Ali says laughing. "I think this book shows a side of life that that book doesn't. So I don't expect a boom in property values as a result. Good thing for me. I'd have to move house again if that happened, ship out and find somewhere tranquil."
Ali says she doesn't like to think of her work in terms of a career. She has begun writing a third novel and has done "little bits of research" on another idea that intrigues her, "but after that I don't know," she says. "Maybe I don't have any more books after that." Given the beauty of Alentejo Blue and its implicit declaration that Ali will not be limited by past achievements, let us hope for many more novels to come.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.