Brick Lane: A Novel
Monica Ali
Scribner, $25 (cloth)

On Saturday, April 24, 1999, at 5:57 p.m., a nail bomb hidden in the trunk of a car exploded outside the Café Naz in Brick Lane, the historic street in London’s East End, home to the largest community of Bangladeshi Muslims outside of South Asia. The bomb destroyed one end of the street. Shards of glass, shrapnel, and nails rained down on people as they ran from the explosion. The Café Naz and the Sweet and Spicy restaurant next to it were set on fire and burned to the ground. A column of thick, acrid black smoke rose into the sky and was visible from several miles away.

London is a city long habituated to terrorism. But this bombing felt different: more vicious, hateful, crude, and murderous. Unlike IRA bombings, no warning was called in to the Metropolitan Police before the explosion. The bomb was a homemade fabrication, based on black powder harvested from fireworks or shotgun cartridges, detonated by a simple clock, wired to batteries, packed with 10 pounds of metal shards and four-inch nails. Its timing was nefarious: the Bengali New Year falls in mid-April, bringing people out into the street to visit friends and neighbors, to go to mosque to pray.

The Brick Lane bombing was the second of three explosions that rocked London in April 1999. Week after week, the carnage became sickeningly predictable. Saturday, April 17, the first bomb exploded on Electric Avenue in Brixton, south London’s predominantly black borough. Forty-five people were injured. Saturday, April 24, the Brick Lane blast in London’s Bangladeshi community. Seven people were injured. Friday, April 30, a third bomb exploded inside the Admiral Duncan Pub in Soho, a central London district favored by the city’s gay and lesbian community. Three were killed, and 65 injured.

All three bombings were undoubtedly hate crimes. Britain has never been entirely at ease with its own multiculturalism. Unlike the United States, it does not claim to be a melting pot: there is much too much colonial complication for that. But Britain has tried to move forward, and that spring you could feel the country cringe at the thought of history twisting back on itself, returning the United Kingdom to a period of violent race wars. The viability of British multiculturalism was on everyone’s minds. Even that bastion of traditional British conservatism, the Royal House of Windsor, spoke out against the divisive intent of the bombings. Prime Minister Tony Blair, loathe to admit that a new Britain under New Labour was anything but an oasis of centrist multiculturalism, tried to rally the nation on May 2. Blair proclaimed that British patriotism no longer excluded people of color (implying, of course, that at one time it did), and that the true outcasts were hate groups like Combat 18 and the British National Party.1 Blair said: “We will defeat them and then we can build the tolerant, multiracial Britain the vast majority of us want to see.”2

At the end of April I went to Brick Lane to examine the bomb damage and its effect on the lives of the Bangladeshis who lived there. The people were scared and angry. The car that housed the bomb had been reduced to a twisted heap of steel. Workers were beginning to hammer boards over the burned-out cavities where the Café Naz and the Sweet and Spicy once stood. Standing before the devastation, you could not help feeling that the mask of British multiculturalism, that façade of “Cool Britannia,” had exploded in everyone’s faces.

It is this Brick Lane that provides the title and setting of Monica Ali’s debut novel, recently published to enormous attention. Following close on the heels of Zadie Smith’s phenomenally successful first novel, also set in the rich, as yet unearthed world of London’s immigrant communities, Brick Lane was featured on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, dubbed a “brilliant book about things that matter” by Ian Jack, editor of the preeminent British literary journal Granta, and shortlisted for the Booker Prize (Ali was the favorite going into the final days, but lost to D.B.C. Pierre). It is surprising then, that the novel fails to mention a single word about the Brick Lane bombing. This omission speaks volumes not only about Ali’s book, but also about the industry that has published and promoted it.

• • •

In January 2003, Granta placed Monica Ali on its list of 20 Best of Young British Novelists. (At the time, she had yet to put a word into print.) The same list also named such young lions as Zadie Smith and Hari Kunzru, who form a bridge generation of modern, supposedly multicultural writers.

The Best of Young British Novelists list is the 1983 brainchild of Desmond Clarke, who at the time was head of the British Book Marketing Council. It is, admittedly, a “naming and faming” exercise designed to sell books. “There’s an element of contrivance about it,” conceded Bill Buford, Granta’s founding editor, who left in April 1995 to become the New Yorker’s fiction editor. It has earmarked some of Britain’s most well-known authors (Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan), but also some of Britain’s most quickly forgotten (Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, Adam Lively). So appointment to the Granta list is not an entirely reliable measure of an author’s future contribution to English letters. But it does guarantee the instant sheen of celebrity and a wealth of media attention for the anointed writers. Brick Lane was published in Britain in June, and with its author already listed among the Best, it spent most of this summer at or near the top of UK bestseller lists.

Brick Lane is the first book that takes us inside the world of London’s Bangladeshi immigrants. And for the first half of the novel, it does feel as if a veil is being pulled aside and a long-ignored demographic, part of that great hidden multitude in multicultural Britain, is given its first honest voice. It is the story of Nazneen, a meek young woman born in a rural Bangladeshi village. We follow Nazneen from her birth in 1967 to near-present 2002 and find that her life is freighted by the burdens fate places upon her, burdens she is not prone to question. “What could not be changed must be borne,” Ali writes. “And since nothing could be changed, everything had to be borne. This principle ruled her life.”

While still a teenager, Nazneen is shipped off to England for an arranged marriage to a fat, bombastic, much older man whom she has never met. Nazneen moves to London to live with her husband, Chanu Ahmed, in his publicly subsidized council flat in Tower Hamlets, the East End borough where Brick Lane is located. Ali has a powerful, clear eye for detail and she introduces intimacies of immigrant life that few outside the community have known.

Her descriptions work on two levels. First, she presents us with life in the small, wretched council-flat complex, conjuring a painfully accurate feel for the idleness, melancholy, and poverty that pervades government housing in London:

It was hot and the sun fell flat on the metal window frames and glared off the glass. A red-and-gold sari hung out of a top-floor flat in Rosemead block. A baby’s bib and miniature dungarees lower down. The sign screwed to the brickwork was in stiff English capitals and the curlicues beneath were Bengali. No Dumping. No Parking. No Ball Games. Two old men in white panjabi pajamas and skullcaps walked along the path, slowly, as if they didn’t want to go where they were going. A thin brown dog sniffed along to the middle of the grass and defecated. The breeze on Nazneen’s face was thick with the smell from over flowing communal bins.

Second, Ali’s hand guides us inside Nazneen’s private, domestic life, and hundreds of pages—almost the entire book—are passed inside this closed world:

She should be getting on with the evening meal. The lamb curry was prepared. She had made it last night with tomatoes and new potatoes. There was chicken saved in the freezer from the last time Dr. Azad had been invited but had canceled at the last minute. There was still the dal to make, and the vegetable dishes, the spices to grind, the rice to wash, and the sauce to prepare for the fish that Chanu would bring this evening. She would rinse the glasses and rub them with newspaper to make them shine. The tablecloth had some spots to be scrubbed out. What if it went wrong? The rice might stick. She might oversalt the dal. Chanu might forget the fish.

While Ali’s focus is domestic, she does keep one eye on foreign shores. Periodically we get letters from Nazneen’s sister, Hasina, still living in Bangladesh, struggling with the hardships brought on by her willful heart. These letters provide a baseline to compare the sisters’ diverging lives—the trials of headstrong Hasina versus the woes of fatalistic Nazneen. (The letters are written in an awkward pidgin English, a baffling stylistic decision. Clearly Hasina is writing in Bengali, her mother tongue. Why shouldn’t her letters be grammatically correct?)

But these letters aside, Brick Lane is a cloistered domestic drama, unperturbed by the outside world. Ali is echoing Jane Austen here, with a modern-day drawing-room tale that unfolds at its own mysterious pace. Nazneen gives birth to a first child and loses him to illness. She has two more children later. They grow up and, much to their father’s dismay, grow into their tight Western jeans and rough English slang. Nazneen fights against the stifling boredom of council-flat existence and finally takes up garment work at home, becoming a one-woman branch of the local sweatshop.

It is at this point that Brick Lane’s insularity gets the novel in trouble. The truth is, London’s East End Bangladeshis do not live in a hermetically sealed community. No immigrants in London do. The world is too globalized, too interconnected, too interdependent to allow for that. The rest of British society constantly impresses itself upon the immigrant experience, and Ali knows it, though she avoids its implications. Nazneen takes up sweatshop work, but the world of that work is entirely missing. Where are the other women working? Who are they working for? How much are they paid? Are they angry that their survival depends on such exploitation? Determined to hem Brick Lane within Nazneen’s limited experience and reach, Ali remains stubbornly reticent on the matter.

And yet, how can she do otherwise? There is a bigger, often hostile world out there, precisely the world that gave rise, during the time that Nazneen lives there, to the Brick Lane bombing. That act of terrorism threatened to blow apart the lives of real Bangladeshis. Had Ali included it in the story, the Brick Lane bombing would have similarly blown apart the placid domestic drama she tries so meticulously to construct.

• • •

This darker side of modern multiculturalism makes for difficult reading and difficult writing. But Monica Ali is intelligent enough to know that for Brick Lane to maintain any sort of legitimacy, she cannot entirely ignore it. Chanu, Nazneen’s hapless husband, serves as the point of connection. By far the most sympathetic character in the book, he places Ali’s Bangladeshi narrative into the context of a wider, more complex world—of poverty, racism, and marginalization.

Chanu is the only one of Ali’s characters who ever leaves the council estate, and he is also the only soul aware enough to know that “the system,” as he calls it, begets the fundamental “immigrant tragedy” their lives represent. Chanu, however, is a caricature. He is prone to the didactic outbursts of a boring blowhard. His anger is meant to be laughed at:

Chanu puffed his cheeks and spat out the air in a fuff. . . . Nazneen, who feared her husband would begin one of his long quotations, stacked a final plate and went to the kitchen. He liked to quote in English and then give her a translation, phrase by phrase. And when it was translated it usually meant no more to her than it did in English, so that she did not know what to reply or even if a reply was required.

She washed the dishes and rinsed them, and Chanu came and leaned against the ill-fitting cupboards and talked some more. “You see,” he said, a frequent opener although often she did not see, “it is the white underclass, like Wilkie, who are most afraid of people like me. To him, and people like him, we are the only thing standing in the way of them sliding totally to the bottom of the pile. As long as we are below them, then they are above something. If they see us rise then they are resentful because we have left our proper place. . . .” He drummed his fingers against the Formica. . . .

Nazneen began to put things away. She needed to get to the cupboard that Chanu blocked with his body. He didn’t move, although she waited in front of him. Eventually she left the pans on the stove, to be put away in the morning.

The first half of Brick Lane shows great promise—that via Chanu we will get a glimpse of how and why “the system” subjugates these people, that we will get a direct look beyond Tony Blair’s “multiracial Britain we all want to see” to the real, often messy multicultural world that we can no longer afford to deny.

But in the second half, Brick Lane retreats from courageous revelation to exhausted, implausible dramatic devices. Just as Ali is on the cusp of throwing real light on the lives of Bangladeshi Muslims in London, just when you feel that she is going to reveal the explosiveness of 21st-century British multiculturalism, just when you think that she is about to break new ground, Ali shifts to an entirely familiar terrain: Nazneen has an affair with a young middleman who delivers garments to her from the sweatshop. He is also the leader of a local gang of Islamic fundamentalists. Poor, ignorant Chanu decides to pack up the family and send everyone home to Bangladesh. If this narrative of adultery, the antics of a group of local Muslim radicals, and the pull of home sounds a lot like a story written by one of Ali’s Granta-listed colleagues, you would not be mistaken.

• • •

Zadie Smith’s 2000 debut novel White Teeth was published to a tsunami of critical acclaim. The gifted young writer and her personal story had all the ornamentation of a literary fairy tale: a mixed-race, twentysomething Oxford student was snatched up by an agent on the basis of 80 handwritten pages; a publishing bidding war resulted in a six-figure advance; the novel became an international bestseller with one million copies sold thus far. Such romping popularity even pushed White Teeth onto television screens: the book was adapted for a four-part miniseries aired in the United States by public television on Masterpiece Theatre.3Most important, White Teeth made Zadie Smith, her agent, and her publisher a great deal of money.

White Teeth was not the first contemporary multicultural British novel, but it was the first spectacularly public one. Through the sheer exuberance of her writing Zadie Smith put the lives of a group of working-class North Londoners—white, Jamaican, Bangladeshi—onto bookshelves across Britain and the United States.

When Brick Lane was released in Britain in June, many critics dismissed their colleagues for suggesting that there were any similarities between it and White Teeth. But their objections were largely stylistic: White Teeth is a humorous satire, Brick Lane a drama; White Teeth is voiced by an omnipresent narrator, Brick Lane’s narration is more reserved; White Teeth spans three generations, Brick Lane spans two; White Teeth has a coterie of many-colored characters, Brick Lane is primarily brown; White Teeth takes place in North London, Brick Lane in East London, etc. Points taken. But if we want to understand why Monica Ali landed on the Granta list, why the publishing industry is propping her up as one of the most important “multicultural” writers of her generation, and why the pressures of this marketplace multiculturalism have reduced what could have been an important, even great novel into simply a good one, it is a useful exercise to pinpoint exactly how the two books are similar, and how the commercial success of the Zadie Phenomenon has wormed its way into Ali’s story.

First, the marriage: In White Teeth the much younger Alsana leaves Bangladesh for the first time to marry the older, blustering Samad Miah Iqbal, already living in London. In Brick Lane, the much younger Nazneen leaves Bangladesh for the first time to marry the older, blustering Chanu.

Second, the sweatshop labor: In White Teeth Alsana punches the needle of her sewing machine through leather, making bondage costumes for an S&M peddler. In Brick Lane, Nazneen uses her sewing machine to make jeans, jackets, and skirts, hundreds a day. Both do it because the family desperately needs the income.

Third, the affair: In White Teeth Samad Iqbal, struggling with the strictures of Islam and the crushing reality of his limitations as an immigrant, has an affair with a schoolteacher. In Brick Lane, Nazneen, struggling with the strictures of Islam and the crushing reality of her limitations as a housewife and immigrant, has an affair with a young Islamic radical. Both affairs lead to family crises later.

Fourth, Muslim extremism: White Teeth brings us the Nation of Islam–like K.E.V.I.N. (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). Brick Lane brings us the Bengal Tigers, a council-based Islamic group organized by the hotheaded Karim, Nazneen’s lover. Both groups succumb to infighting and violence that detracts from their cause.

Fifth, the desire to return to Bangladesh: Short of money to ship his whole family back, White Teeth’s Samad Miah Iqbal sends one of his sons to Dhaka. Nazneen wants to stay in London with her daughters, so Brick Lane’s Chanu returns to Bangladesh alone. In both books the depressing truth of immigrant life in Britain, the disappointment of being denied the dream sold to the darker citizens of the Commonwealth, fuel the Bangladeshi urge to repatriate.

Sixth, Samad and Chanu themselves: Both men are clowns, sad jesters of the defeated, deflated immigrant. Fat and demanding, intelligent yet incompetent, they bellow about past greatness in their homelands (Samad: “My great-grandfather Mangal Pande was the great hero of the Indian Mutiny!” Chanu: “I have a degree from Dhaka University in English Literature. Can Wilkie quote from Chaucer or Dickens or Hardy?”) but are powerless to create a successful life in Britain. Samad waits on white people in an Indian restaurant. Chanu drives white people around London in a cab. Both rage at their rebellious, Anglicized children. Both lean on the teachings of a fundamentalist Islam as their lives slide further into failure. Both are comically wise to the immigrant dilemma made manifest in their lives. Here is Ali’s Chanu:

I’m talking about the clash between Western values and our own. I’m talking about the struggle to assimilate and the need to preserve one’s identity and heritage. I’m talking about children who don’t know what their identity is. I’m talking about the feelings of alienation engendered by a society where racism is prevalent. I’m talking about the terrific struggle to preserve one’s sanity while striving to achieve the best for one’s family.

Both men are the same parody of a multicultural tragedy. They are the only characters who come into substantial contact with the rest of London, who leave the council estate only to have the limp shapes of their broken ambitions thrown in their faces day after day by “the system.”

By casting Chanu in the absurdity of a Samad-like mold, and by choosing to devote the second half of her book to Nazneen’s infidelity, Ali makes a deliberate decision to impose domestic blinkers on Brick Lane. She does not reveal to us the cause of Chanu’s private demise. She does not delve into his life away from home. She withholds from us all of London outside the council estate, the London that Chanu must survive in every day. She gives us nothing of the world that has made Chanu’s best hopes impossible to realize, so we are left to believe that his failure is of his own making. Ali keeps her narrative penned inside Nazneen’s domestic doldrums and dilemmas. The complexities of modern multiculturalism—its real complexities, as life and not simply as theory—do not rise beyond Chanu’s exasperated lip service and his homebound rants. The time line of Brick Lane puts Nazneen and Chanu in the East End at the time of the Brick Lane bombing. They would have witnessed the horror of that April day. Yet Ali makes no mention of the disaster.


It is hard not to conclude that Monica Ali shied away from the tough truth because opening the narrative to the troubled reality of British multiculturalism would have violated the basic dictate of the Zadie Phenomenon as seen by the publishing industry: the financial pull of the potential bestseller demands that a writer beset her characters with such familiar, mainstream problems as adultery rather than engage with the unfamiliar, distasteful, dark side of multiculturalism—the real multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural society that the majority of us do not want to see. This is where the cheat of the successful commercial “multicultural novel” is laid bare: for all its multicultural packaging, Brick Lane is a strictly monocultural, “see-they-are-just-like-us” affair.4

Was this a conscious decision on Ali’s part? Was she pressured by agents and publishers, in their gentle way, to avoid the pressing issues raised so dramatically by the Brick Lane bombing? The answers to these questions are uncertain. What does seem clear is that this adherence to the Zadie Phenomenon ultimately causes Brick Lane to fall flat.

But the publishing industry has decided to throw its weight behind Brick Lane. Unlike other less publicized authors, Monica Ali received a six-figure advance, was named to the Granta list, was described two days later in the Observer as “one of the most significant British novelists of her generation,” received a glut of media attention for her book, nearly won the Booker, and is now the standard-bearer of British multicultural fiction.

This same publishing industry has turned a cold shoulder to other, less marketable writers. Very little has been told about Suhayl Saadi’s challenging short story collection, The Burning Mirror. Seventeen major publishing companies rejected The White Family, a frank, disturbing portrait of British racists by white author Maggie Gee, before it was taken up by Saqi Books, a small, specialist UK publisher. (Gee was named to the 1983 Granta list and The White Family was later shortlisted for the Orange Prize. However, Gee’s Granta accolade wasn’t enough to prevent 17 rejections by the industry, and the Orange Prize nomination would have never happened if Saqi hadn’t put the book on the shelves.) Above all, neither of these books achieved a fraction of Brick Lane’s sales.

Even the means by which Monica Ali’s British publisher, Doubleday, marketed Brick Lane sought to obscure the multiculturalism of her own life. Doubleday granted first interview rights in a national newspaper to the Guardian, but when the paper decided to assign its respected literary critic, the South Asian Maya Jaggi, to the story, Doubleday requested a different journalist, preferably a non–South Asian one, because Monica Ali preferred to be seen as a writer first and a “coloured person” second. The Jaggi byline, it seems, might have ghettoized the review. Jaggi protested and Doubleday promptly issued an apology for the “misunderstanding,” but the point had already been made. Another writer did the interview for the Guardian.

This, then, is the publishing industry that brings us today’s supposedly multicultural authors. And it is this industry’s efforts and enthusiasm that shape the overall commercial presence and success of today’s “multicultural” books.

• • •

In defense of Ali’s domesticity, Michael Gorra writes in the New York Times Book Review that “Ali surely expects her readers to fill in the particulars of the city that surrounds her characters, and yet she also makes us recognize that they don’t need it.” I disagree. Readers have a right to expect more unflinching multicultural writing, and this requires not only bringing to life the conflicted immigrant, but the conflicted, fractured country that surrounds him. But even in ostensibly “multicultural fiction,” immigrants continue to be lopped off and swept under the workings of the new world where they make their homes.

Monica Ali puts Nazneen and her family in front of the television to witness the destruction of September 11th. But only Chanu understands the consequences of what is taking place on the screen, and he quickly exits the narrative soon after. We never know what Nazneen’s reaction might be, or what effect that event had on her life as an immigrant and Muslim. Instead, Ali makes her point about immigrant disenfranchisement, about extremism and racism, through a brown-on-brown riot at the end of the book. Ali’s radical Muslim Bengal Tigers, founded to counter the Lion Hearts (a feckless, faceless group of white supremacists), are reduced to raging against themselves (“Mussulman against Mussulman”), turning over cars and setting fire to the very restaurants they work in on Brick Lane. As for the world that gave rise to such violence, of the deep well of anger boiling just outside her window in London: Monica Ali demurs.

A friend who works for the BBC World Service once remarked to me on the blighted Bangladeshis who live “out there in Tower Hamlets.” Having lived in London for decades, he admits knowing almost nothing about the lives of modern Muslim immigrants. To him, but not him alone by any means, they are a dark, enigmatic underclass standing in doorways, drifting in and out of mosques. One wonders how they look upon us. Monica Ali and the new celebrated generation of “ethnic” writers should be writing this story.

The real Brick Lane is the ideal place to tell such a story. Just yards from Brick Lane lies Spitalfields Market. Archaeologists have been excavating 2,000-year-old Roman ruins here as local activists try to save the site from redevelopment into upscale restaurant space. A few feet farther still and you stand among the soaring chrome-and-glass buildings of Europe’s financial capital. The high-flying financiers who work there frequent Brick Lane restaurants, and for the immigrants in the borough they are more than pale-faced ghosts in pinstripes and polished shoes. They are rich, they are white, and they are buying the historic homes in and around Brick Lane.

Imagine if Monica Ali gave us this story. Instead of giving us only a peek into the immigrant world, imagine if she described what immigrants see when they look out. Imagine if she showed us what Chanu sees on nights when he drives his cab:5 decrepit public infrastructure, an entrenched class system, arcane property laws, legal double standards, exclusive educational systems, white flight, political doublespeak, fear, and racist loathing.

We need such daring, disturbing writing now. But instead of Hanif Kureishi (Granta rightly put him on its second 1993 list), today’s literary establishment has chosen to elevate such preferred “ethnic” writers as Monica Ali,6 Hari Kunzru and Zadie Smith because they stop short and deliver the type of multicultural society we want to see. They are the type of multicultural society we want to see—mixed race, highly educated, not too dark or alien—and so they are put forth as the authentic voices of a new generation. But as broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant noted on the BBC Radio 4 program Start of the Week, “Literary establishments look for authentic voices outside themselves, but because they only live inside themselves they don’t quite recognise the authentic other. They can only stereotype what they think it is.” The Brick Lane bomber was arrested on May 1, 1999, just days after the last explosion in Soho. He was David Copeland, a 23-year old hatemonger and, as early as 1997, a member of the East London chapter of the British National Party. Copeland wanted to make more than a political point. He wanted to kill. He had originally placed the bomb outside the Jamme Masjid Mosque at 59 Brick Lane. A conscientious passerby noticed the bag, picked it up and went to alert the Metropolitan Police at their office down the road. When he found no one there, he put the bag in the trunk of his car and left to telephone authorities. The bomb exploded minutes later.

Chiseled in a sundial that hangs above the entrance to the Jamme Masjid Mosque is the most eloquent description of Brick Lane, its history, and the immigrant tragedy. Originally constructed in 1743, the building’s first life was as a Huguenot chapel used by Protestants escaping persecution in France. At the end of the 19th century it was reconsecrated as the Spitalfields Great Synagogue by the Machzikei Hadath for the East End’s newly arrived Jews. They were fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. In 1976 it was made home of the Jamme Masjid Mosque used by Brick Lane’s burgeoning Bangladeshi community. For 260 years the same sundial has loomed over the heads of worshippers entering the building, in whatever its current incarnation. And in the sundial an inscription: Umbra Sumus. We are shadows.



1 The far-right British National Party (BNP) was founded in 1982 by John Tyndall, former chairman of the National Front. It claims to be the “voice of the silent British majority” and asserts that in 60 years demographic flux in Britain will push “native” Britons into the minority. The BNP’s political platform calls for an immediate end to all immigration to the UK, the deportation of all criminal and illegal immigrants, and the establishment of a voluntary resettlement program whereby legal immigrants and their British-born children would be afforded the opportunity to return to “their land of ethnic origin.” As of September 2003 the BNP had been elected to 18 local council seats across Britain, including seven new seats in Burnley (a city that suffered three days of race riots along with Oldham, Leeds, and Bradford in summer 2001) making it the official opposition to the Labour majority there.

2 The prime minister happened to be at an international convention of Sikhs in Birmingham, England, when he made this statement. See John Deans, Daily Mail, 3 May 1999.

3 In his introduction to the miniseries, a graciously amused Russell Baker assured Masterpiece Theatre purists that though this was not the typical guttersnipe and country manor material the show usually dramatizes, White Teeth had been championed as thoroughly Dickensian by critics around the world. He also thought it important to add that when Zadie Smith finished writing the book “she was 24, and, because the book was a huge literary success, she had a lot of money.”

4 Ali freely admits that the inspiration for the book does not come from her own life. Her mother is white, her father Bangladeshi. She was born in Dhaka, grew up in northern England, went to Oxford, married an Englishman and now lives in south London. Her authenticity and intimacy with the East End Bangladeshi community is subject to question and perhaps explains why one London-based South Asian reviewer (Aparisim Ghosh) thought the book was “dull as dhal.”

5 As an example of how beautifully and powerfully this can be done, I think of Chekhov’s short story, “Misery.”

6 Monica Ali has indicated that if she wanted to, she could be a more daring writer. In the 17 June 2003 edition of the Guardian she wrote: “For VS Naipaul, ‘finding the centre’ has been an important part of his journey as a writer. . . . The Muslim world (of which I have written a small section about) is at the centre of our gaze as never before . . . and in any case, what do we have, at the notional centre, to set against the periphery—V.S. Naipaul, writing about Wiltshire?