BRICK LANE , Monica Ali's stunning debut, is both timeless and very much of the moment. Set against a backdrop of racial tensions, and incorporating events such as the attack on New York's Twin Towers and the Oldham riots, it is the poweAlly imagined story of one Muslim woman's tentative journey towards empowerment, and of her private agonies, into whlch Ali sWy weaves a broader examination of identity and dislocation.. That woman is Nazneen, a 'comically solemn child' fiom Bangladesh, who grows up believing that to fight her fate is futile. An immigrant in London's East End, Nazneen must decide what her responsibilities to her husband (lund, over-ambitious Chanu), her faith \. and her children (both dead and alive) shoild be. She endures her lot with a stoicism reminiscent of her dead mother. until a relationshit, with the embrvonic mditant Karim svarks in her an emotional insurrection.
Ali's mastery of her material is impressive. The world of the Bangladeshi diaspora - where the coolung is aromatic, and where academic learning is emphasised, but not to the exclusion of gossip or superstition - is vividly reahsed. Her satisfyingly complex characterisation (especially of Nazneen's neighbours on her Tower Hamlets estate) borders on the Dickensian in its scove and eve for detail. Ali is particularly perceptive about clothing and the way it betrays one's inner world, whether in the case of Muslim teenagers' fondness for tight jeans and 'complicated trainers', or Nazneen's preoccupation with ice-skaters and the freedom implied in their short skirts. Brick Lane is to be savoured as much for its observation of the subtle shifts in power within relationships as for its depiction of religious conflict. It is enthralling; as a first novel it is exceptional.
Minotaurs are creatures of tragic bondage, permanently trapped in a state of being half-man, half-bull. M, the minotaur protagonist of published poet Steven Sherrill's The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break , is appropriately a figure of pathos, yet one brought bang up to date.
M is a conscientious line-cook at Grub's Rib, a tackv rib-shack restaurant in a southern American state. ath he; than having him devour virgins, Sherrill subverts the myth and rnakesraw onions M's food of choice, giving rise to a lovely touch regarding M's constant anxiety about halitosis. Despite being off the pace socially (owing to some horns and a distinct lack of verbal dexterity), M finds himself, at this time in his life (he is currently 5,000 years old, and destined to live for ever), surrounded by lund, ordinary people who have the integrity to see beyond his abnormalities: the restaurant owner. the landlord of his mobile trailer-home - and waitress Kelly, whom M adores from afar. Sadly, he also encounters abuse and hostilitv. and eventuallv finds himself accused of rape.
This is a tender book - a feel-good story adout life's misfits, with important things to say about prejudice. Here, a half-beast can be recognised as less barbaric than a matador. In its portrayal of loneliness, the writing quivers with compassion. The moral - that even those of us who seem most like monsters need love and hope to survive - is pleasantly light. This effortlessly wins my award for the quirluest title this year.
The catalyst for the events depicted in Anne Donovan's first novel, Buddha Da, which was short-listed for this year's orange prize, is the decision by Anne-Marie's father, Jimmy (the 'Da' of the title), to embrace Buddhism. As a wisecrackmg painter and decorator fiom 'Glesga', Jirnmy is as bemused as the rest of his fady bv his sudden fixation. Chats with orange-robed lamas, U Aedtation and a weekend retreat spent chopping carrots encourage Jirnrny to forgo alcohol, meat and eventually sex with his wife Liz in his tentative iournev towards enlightenment. With chapters narrated by Jimrny, Liz and Anne-Marie in turn (a device which makes for some poignant ironies), Donovan unearths an astonishmg lyricism in their gritty Glaswegian vernacular. From its unassuming opening, the novel evolves into - dare I say it - a charming medtation on life, death and self-dscovery.
For his surreal debut, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, Paul Murray has created the refieshmg character of Charles Hythloday, a politically incorrect, latter-day Irish Bertie Wooster, who is ineptly making a stand against modernity and gainfd employment. After establishmg its theme of catastrophe with an opening reference to the Kansas Twister of Wizard of Oz fame, the novel goes on to describe Charles's various battles (with the postmanturned- private-eye, the bank manager, his actress-sister Bel) to prevent Amaurot, his beloved family pile, from being repossessed. With crisp dalogue and an eccentric supporting cast (the dtant builders down tools in sympathy with any oppression anywhere in the world). the book has Charles bumping up against heroin addicts, dog-racing enthusiasts and Latvian temps before learning that, like the characters in Bel's favourite play (Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard), he must atone for his past order to move on. This progressively darkening farce announces Murray's arrival as a promising new voice.
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka is a poetic novel of devastating simplicity. It is a study of longing and loss, as an unnamed Japanese- American brother and sister recall the night-time arrest of their father for alleged treason after Pearl Harbor. Categorised as enemy aliens on America's West Coast, the siblings and their mother are interned in a camp in the middle of the Utah desert. where the eva~oration of water symbolises the gradual disappearance of everything about their old life, apart fiom their memories and dgnity. In her economical evocation of a nation pro-jecting its fears onto the outsiders within, Otsuka has written. with great poise and subtlety, an acdount of American history that is thought-provolung in its relevance for today.