Brick Lane tells the story of Nazneen, born in a Bangladeshi village and sent to London in 1985 as the bride of Chanu, a much older man chosen by her father. In Britain, she lives the soporific life of an Asian housewife, raising two daughters (after a son dies in infancy) and attending to her undemanding, if uninspiring, husband. Years—and far too many pages—pass uneventfully before Nazneen shakes off her torpor to conduct an affair with a younger man slightly less feckless than her husband. Eventually, she dumps both men and strikes out on her own, but so timidly that her independence seems doomed.
The absence of narrative punch is compounded by a paucity of interesting characters. Brick Lane seems to be populated entirely by clichés, one-dimensional people taken straight from a textbook of Indo-Anglian Lit. Nazneen is docile and, until the final few pages, dutiful, never speaking her mind, never standing up to her weakling of a husband. Chanu is the stereotypical first-generation Asian immigrant, holding on to fantasies of his native land's historic glories so he can feel superior to the people of his adopted country. Their doctor friend Ali also clings to his Bengali heritage, and is profoundly embarrassed by his inability to prevent his wife and daughter from becoming Westernized. Nazneen's children and other second-generation Bangladeshis are the obligatory rebels—they all listen to Asian-rap DJs, fall into bad company, become junkies or run away from home. Even the mealymouthed money-lender and the neighborhood busybody are staples of subcontinental literature, although Ali fuses them together in the unusually female form of Mrs. Islam.
As a result, it is almost impossible to feel for these people when they are beset by their many, mostly minor, tragedies. It's hard even to feel sorry for poor Hasina when she gets so little sympathy from her creator: Ali leaves her story unexplained and incomplete. Hasina, too, is a stereotype, the innocent rustic who goes to the city to find love and happiness but is exploited and degraded by rapacious urban men.
And since it follows that clichés can only talk in clichés, Ali's characters spout the requisite quirky homilies: "A blind uncle is better than no uncle"; "Rubbing ashes on your face doesn't make you a saint"; "The jackfruit is still on the tree but already he is oiling his moustache." Chanu, in particular, seems to construct entire monologues out of aphorisms. In Bengali folk theater, that's a tried and tested comedic technique. Here, it's tired and tiring. If you're looking for something with genuine spice, you're better off with Hanif Kureishi's back catalog—or at the curry houses on the real Brick Lane.