Brick Lane

Brick Lane Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Monica Ali

Monica Ali was born in East Pakistan to a Pakistani father and a British mother. When she was three years old, she and her family moved to Bolton, England. Later, she enrolled in Oxford’s Wadham College, where she studied philosophy, politics, and economics. Brick Lane, her first novel, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. She has written three other novels: Alentejo Blue, In the Kitchen, and Untold Story. She lives in South London with her husband, Simon Torrance, and their two children.
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Historical Context of Brick Lane

In 1947, the predominantly Hindu region of West Bengal was made part of India, while the mostly Muslim region of East Bengal became part of Pakistan. Often referred to by Bengalis simply as “Partition,” this act, perpetrated by British colonial powers, gave rise to decades of unrest, with East Pakistan suffering continual prejudice and genocide at the hands of West Pakistani forces. In 1971, East Pakistan, having fought a short and bloody war, declared its independence, becoming the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Toward the end of the novel, the terror attacks of September 11 unfold in the U.S., shocking the Bengali residents of Tower Hamlets who are then targeted in a number of racially-motivated incidents.

Other Books Related to Brick Lane

For more on Bangladesh’s bloody history under Partition and during the War of Independence, read Tahmima Aman’s novel A Golden Age, which tells the story of a family torn apart by the political events of the time. Also consider Zadie’s Smith’s White Teeth, which chronicles the everyday lives of immigrants living in London, focusing on the intersections of British and African, Asian, and Caribbean cultures. While set in India, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie has much in common with Brick Lane, following as it does the adventures of another “child of fate,” Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment of his country’s independence. And, given that one of Ali’s main areas of focus in Brick Lane is the fraught nature of assimilation, novels about the American immigrant experience are relevant as well. For glimpses of what it’s like to be an immigrant on the other side of the pond, check out Browngirl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, Jasmine by Bharati Mukherjee, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Key Facts about Brick Lane
  • Full Title: Brick Lane
  • When Written: 2003
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: June 2, 2004
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Literature, Migrant Literature
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: East Pakistan, late 1960s; Dhaka, Bangladesh, early nineties to early 2000s; London, early 90s to early 2000s
  • Climax: Nazneen finishes paying the debt she and her husband, Chanu, owe to the corrupt and cruel Mrs. Islam, refusing, despite intimidation from the woman’s two thuggish sons, to hand over any more money in interest. This act of defiance gives Nazneen the courage to end her relationship with her lover, Karim, and tell Chanu that she will not return to Bangladesh with him but will, instead, be making a life for herself and her daughters in London.
  • Point of View: Third-person limited following Nazneen, and first-person letters from the point of view of Hasina

Extra Credit for Brick Lane

The Bard of Bengal. As a self-proclaimed “educated man,” Chanu is always trying to instill in his daughters a love of Bangladesh and Bengali culture. With the pro-West Shahana, a character Monica Ali admits is based on her young self, he fails miserably, but Bibi is more interested. At one point in the novel, Chanu prompts his daughters as they recite the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, a poet and musician often referred to as “the bard of Bengal.” The first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote everything from dance-dramas to essays to political tracts. Chanu’s political leanings mirror those of Tagore, who passionately advocated for independence and often wrote and spoke out against British colonial rule.

Muslin or daka. It is no coincidence that Hasina works in a garment factory in Dhaka, or that Nazneen and Razia make their livings as freelance seamstresses. Bangladesh has been a textile industry leader since the 16th century, when the city produced a large portion of the world’s silk and muslin. The latter was even referred to as “daka” in many markets, in homage to the Dhaka’s preeminence as a muslin producer. When the British East India Company conquered Bengal in 1757, the British began plundering Bengali raw materials and using them in their own textile factories in England, then selling the resulting fabrics back to Bengalis at exorbitant prices. Many areas of Bengal suffered economic collapse as a result.