Parts are more than the whole

Ali's novel of short stories works until it tries to stitch them together

Review Novel

June 18, 2006|By LAURA DEMANSKI | LAURA DEMANSKI,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Alentejo Blue

Monica Ali

Scribner / 240 pages / $24

Monica Ali's first novel, the widely chattered-about and widely prize-nominated Brick Lane, chronicled the experience of an emigrant plucked from her home country and dropped, to fend for herself, in an alien culture. In that case, the lost home was Bangladesh (Ali's birthplace) and the challenging new setting London.

In Alentejo Blue, Ali's second novel, the emigrant experience is again central. But here the place is Portugal, most of the transplants are English, and - the most significant difference from Brick Lane - a whole spectrum of such experiences is explored. Moreover, the lives of these foreigners stand alongside the experiences of native residents of the Alentejo, a region so sleepy that there are "only nine pages devoted to" it in an English guidebook. This is Ali's more ambitious and accomplished novel, depicting not one but many varieties of expatriate experience in Alentejo, as well as the foreigners' impact on the indigenous population.

The question this raises is whether, in wielding such a wide-angle lens and writing, in effect, a novel without a protagonist, Ali can equal the depth that snared readers of Brick Lane. The answer is yes - and no. It's not scope that trumps depth in Alentejo Blue, but the novel's formal structure: Ali strings together nine short stories, eight recording the experiences of different people in the Alentejo village of Mamarrosa and one bridging all of these perspectives when the characters gather at a village celebration.

The "novel in short stories" is no new trick, but Ali adapts it in a distinctive way, making it her own. Each of the first eight stories belongs utterly to a single character, steeped in that individual's consciousness, sensibility and ethos. But Ali's reversion to third-person omniscient narration in the last story is the real innovation and surprise - one that, alas, doesn't have whatever effect was intended. Instead, it ends the reader's journey on a flat tire, dispersing the separate intensities that had mounted in each boldly imagined, pristinely written story that came before.

These stories are absorbing and beautiful; they, and the characters they give voice to, are enmeshed in intricate and surprising ways. In Chapter Two we meet Harry Stanton, an English writer who has come to Portugal on a retreat to finish his novel about the life of William Blake. He exudes a macho intellectualism reminiscent of Hemingway, or perhaps of a subtle caricature of Papa. Stanton's story is told in the same clipped, impassive prose - as here, concerning the end of an affair: "They ran out of steam, got to the end of each other. They both knew it. Still, he had to say something, and it would be a delicate business. He sat on the steps shuffling cards and waiting."

Stanton's story continues to take on nuances even after it has ended on the page. The way it concludes shows the ugly underbelly of a superficially attractive character type - the damage he trails behind him - and later, when we start to see him through other characters' eyes, his ridiculousness is also aired. Such a critique of the worldly, self-consciously manly writer might seem a standard-issue attack on an easy enough target, but in Ali's hands it's something special. Her Hemingway turn works both as subtle parody and as legitimately gripping and lovely prose - a neat, even astonishing feat that makes one's head spin a little.

Chapter Five gives us Eileen, a middle-aged English housewife traveling with her husband but dreaming of a different life: "I could be one of those Englishwomen with fat ankles and capillaried cheeks and hair coming down from a tattered hat who set up in places like this, to keep bees or grow runner beans or save donkeys." One of the most moving passages in the book belongs to Eileen, whose buried longing for a different outcome for her family surfaces when she meets another touring English couple in the final chapter.

The six characters - three of them English, three Portuguese - who anchor the other stories are as compelling and complex as Stanton and Eileen, and each chapter of Alentejo Blue is a fully equipped, self-sustaining fictional world. Too bad, then, about the concluding ninth chapter, with its will to gather everything that has come before onto the same canvas and set the stories intersecting and colliding. Not only is this endpiece engaged in unnecessary work - for the character-driven chapters have managed these encounters quite beautifully on their own - it also carries the faint but perceptible whiff of the test tube. Whereas everything that has come before has given off only the pulses of life.

Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She maintains a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.

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