Love Marriage
By Monica Ali
Virago, UK
ISBN: 978-0349015491

There are two types of brown stories: those that are written for ourselves and those that are written for a Western sensibility.

The former kind, though more authentic, find it hard to gain widespread commercial success because, historically, publishers have preferred certain narrative tones. Most books adhere to them and that’s why South Asian stories in general brim with tiresome stereotypes, especially when describing the brown immigrant experience.

I typically pick up brown literature with a certain amount of trepidation, because of the repeatedly seen tropes of the assiduously hardworking, emotionally unavailable father; the loving but provincial and fumbling mother; the marginally frigid, morally upright daughter and, of course, the wayward, radicalised brother with a larger-than-life identity crisis.

Love Marriage by Bangladeshi British author Monica Ali follows all these tropes. Until it doesn’t.

Monica Ali’s fifth novel may not stay with readers for years to come, but it will definitely make them stop and think

The story starts simply enough, with an average immigrant family trying to navigate life in England one bowl of curry at a time. Shokat is a doctor who hails from humble beginnings. He prides himself on the middle-class life he has achieved. He wears a suit and tie every day. His English is “too correct” — ensuring that he sounds even more foreign — and he drives an ugly, utilitarian car regardless of his upward financial mobility.

His wife, Anisah, is the loving, well-intentioned matriarch whom no one takes too seriously. She has refrained from acclimatising to her new environment and stubbornly holds on to the culture of her ancestors. She views outside food with a high degree of suspicion, wears garish, impractical clothes — much to the chagrin of her children — and lives an insular life taking care of her family.

The protagonist is Yasmin, a doctor in training who seems to be following quietly and diligently in her father’s footsteps without creating a fuss. To introduce some chaos into this perfect and peaceful life, we have Yasmin’s brother, Arif, the so-called black sheep.

Arif resents his parents for not understanding his own struggles with “otherness” and the constant, racist microaggressions he has grown up with. He and his father are in an incessant state of strife and Shokat’s life lessons are not received with the awe-inspiring reverence that he demands.

The two children are burdened by the overarching weight of parental expectations, which is aggravated by the lack of communication and the constant need for maintaining decorum at the cost of emotional wellbeing. Even conversations that desperately need to be had are quietly brushed under the carpet in the name of propriety: “When Yasmin began her first period, her mother had slipped her a pack of Kotex maxi pads and murmured instructions not to touch the Quran.”

So many of these moments are a commentary on the priority pyramid at the heart of the desi diaspora, with mental health and wellbeing languishing at the very bottom.

Most brown people will be able to relate to having a hardworking father laboriously working for every opportunity, frugal to a fault, diminished in front of the white folk and constantly regaling the kids with stories of struggle and the need to keep one’s head down and trudge away at a thankless job.

Being gainfully employed and being able to provide for one’s family are the only goals and these can only be achieved if one is a doctor, engineer or accountant — the only choices Shokat gives Yasmin and Arif.

Arif, however, is creative. He wants to spread his wings and find his own life path, which his father perceives as being irresponsible, immature and feckless.

The sari’s rose-pink border was fringed with a layer of mud. Patches of sweat darkened the underarms of her choli. Trust Ma to dress inappropriately for every occasion or activity. — Excerpt from the book

Things take a dramatic turn when Yasmin and her white boyfriend, Joe, decide to tie the knot. A fellow doctor, Joe comes from enough of an upper-class and wealthy family for Yasmin’s parents to acquiesce to the marriage.

Joe’s mother, Harriett, is a fierce, feminist writer who has risen to some prominence by her opposition to prevalent and popular faux female empowerment and her work on white liberal guilt. Hilarity and awkward culture clashes abound as the two families come together in an attempt to become acquainted with one another and to discuss the upcoming nuptials.

The union of these two very distinctive and disparate families highlights the stark contrast between refined, elegant, articulate Harriett and faltering, garish Anisah. The latter’s inaccurate use of the English language peppers some comedic moments throughout the book.

It is interesting to see how Ali uses forms of language to push the narrative forward and give us an insight into how systemic prejudices actually operate. This reminded me of something I had read by Amy Tan, famed Chinese American author of The Joy Luck Club. In her short story ‘Mother Tongue’, Tan talks about the different “Englishes” with which she grew up.

Tan’s mother’s version of English was always considered “broken” or “fractured” and this, in some way, was viewed as being a direct reflection of her intellect, which couldn’t be further from the truth. ‘Immigrant speak’, so to say, has always been a source of great shame for children who view their parents through a Western lens and, many times, resent them for being unable to speak ‘properly’.

Tan purports that the complicated relationship that immigrant children have with the English language is the reason why there is so little Asian representation in English literature. Ali uses both Shokat’s and Anisah’s way of speaking to expertly paint a vivid picture, which gives the reader a sense of character, class and the role of language in modern Western society.

But then, just when one thinks this will be your typical brown immigrant family narrative, Love Marriage detours on highly unexpected tangents and saves the book from stereotypical mediocrity.

I was left surprised by dynamics and events that caught me completely off guard. Without giving too much of the story away, one highlight of the book was the equation between Harriet and Anisah.

Harriet — priding herself on being just the right kind of liberal — is delighted to have a culturally diverse set to add to her guest list, but her treatment of Anisah, though well-intentioned, reeks of white saviour overtones. She considers Anisah her intellectual inferior and someone she can groom and mentor, almost like a pet. Yasmin’s friend astutely observes that Harriett is “othering your ma.”

With the world becoming acutely aware of the pitfalls of structural inequality and systemic racism, we see the need for relationships of all forms to be devoid of paternalistic elements. Ali delves into this dynamic with a profound insight into the perils of exoticising people of colour.

Another interesting relationship is that between Harriet with her only child, Joe. Seemingly supportive and highly functional, it has cracks that surface as the story unfolds. Being an only child to a single mother comes with its own set of dysfunctions, especially if the child is put into the role of emotional cornerstone.

“In a healthy parent-child relationship, the love is nurturing and liberating; when the parent makes the child a surrogate partner, the love can feel imprisoning and suffocating.”

The resultant complexities are apparent from the glimpses we see of Joe’s therapy sessions, in which he struggles to make sense of some unaddressed issues affecting his life and his relationship with Yasmin.

As the story makes headway, we see carefully placed facades get thrown by the wayside, relationships unravel, morality take a nosedive and a nod given to all current issues of class, culture, politics, Islamophobia, tokenism and identity politics.

As for the characters, although they are complicated and layered, none will remain indelibly etched in my memory. However, I do think this might have been deliberate. Their unremarkability is what makes the book relatable and accessible, because there are no superheroes here; just a group of average folks navigating their mundane lives.

Ali also touches upon important subjects of brown female sexuality, queer culture in the brown community, parental expectations and the dangers of the faux façade prevalent in the South Asian diaspora. Our need to maintain a shiny veneer is becoming increasingly treacherous, especially for brown women who are unable to make decisions in their own best interests.

Released almost 20 years after her debut novel Brick Lane — which had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize — Ali’s fifth novel proves that she has once again hit the mark. Love Marriage may not stay with me for years to come, but it definitely made me stop, put the book down, stare into the horizon, and think.

The reviewer is co-founder of My Bookshelf, an online library which delivers books to you and picks them up when you’re done reading., @mybookshelfpk

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 21st, 2022



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