Love Marriage

Monica Ali

Virago, £18.99

Review by Nick Major

Monica Ali is best – and sometimes only – known for her 2003 debut, Brick Lane. This is unsurprising when one considers the novel’s popularity. It was nominated for the Booker Prize, and Ali was on Granta’s Best Young Novelists list before her book was even in print. Take from that what you will, but, in part, it was popular because it brought a hidden story into the light. It is about an uneducated virgin bride from Bangladesh who is sent to London for an arranged marriage. The novel showed another side of polyglot London: the Bangladeshi community some people previously knew about only through its food.

Her subsequent novels were not received with quite as much gushing praise, such is the fickle nature of book-world. Alentejo Blue (2006) was – mostly – set in Portugal, a bold and interesting decision which showed she was not to be pigeon-holed; Into the Kitchen (2009) moved back to Britain, and was based in a hotel restaurant; Untold Story (2011) followed a woman, remarkably like Diana Spencer, who fakes her own death and hides away in small-town America to escape the Royal Family. Since then, there has been a lull. Now a decade later, she has published Love Marriage, which comes in at just under 500 pages.

The hidden life is also the subject of this novel. It is about two London families, the Ghoramis and the Sangsters. Joe Sangster and Yasmin Ghorami are young doctors, engaged to be married. They work at St. Barnabas hospital in London. Yasmin’s family are Muslim, but in the way that some Christians describe themselves as CofE. Her parents were both born in India. The father, Shaokat, is secular. When asked about his faith, he replies that his wife, Anisah, “shoulders the burden of faith for the two of us”. Joe’s mother, Harriet, is a white feminist intellectual who lives on Primrose Hill – obviously – and seems to earn money solely from being a contrarian.

We begin with a first meeting between the two families. Yasmin worries her family’s conservativism might be undermined in Harriet’s household. The opening sentence of the novel, for example, runs: “In the Ghorami household sex was never mentioned.” For Harriet, sex is something discussed with unabashed exuberance. So, “what would ensue if, as had happened on Yasmin’s first visit to Primrose Hill, she [Harriet] insisted on showing off her collection of Indian erotica? Or started on one of her pet topics, such as the cultural significance of pubic hair?”

Ali uses this culture clash to write some great scenes. Shaokat, for instance, doesn’t understand English irony, whereby “affection could be expressed in insults”. Harriet is so desperate not to be seen as racist that she convinces Yasmin’s parents to hold an Islamic ceremony for the wedding, something no-one else has even considered. Harriet has her own motives of course: “I’m looking forward to seeing how many impeccable liberals of our acquaintance turn out to be Islamophobes.” From this point on, if the marriage goes ahead, a baffled Joe will convert to Islam.

After this, I looked forward to more farcical comedy. And there is more, scattered around, but from here the plot takes precedence. The story becomes a series of crises. Every family member (including Yasmin’s brother, Arif) has a life-changing secret. Joe – heretofore, charming, respectful, earnest – turns out to have a sex addiction. This would be worrying in itself, but, well, he’s a gynaecologist. He starts regular therapy sessions that unearth his unhealthy relationship with his mother. Yasmin becomes disenchanted with the NHS, and suspects that she is only a doctor out of fatherly loyalty. Harriet and Anisah become best friends and this, in turn, uncovers the strange foundation of Anisah’s marriage.

I could go on like this, for pages. In a straightforward farce, this chaos would work, but Ali too often turns to sombre drama. A particular violent scene involving Shaokat and Arif has about it the atmosphere of a cheap soap opera; Joe’s conversations with his therapist are too sincere for fiction. There’s a reason Philip Roth got away with so many psychotherapists in his novels; he didn’t take them seriously.

This aside, Ali is wonderful at depicting society’s social mores and obsessions. Take the example of causing offence, which nowadays is a crime equivalent to high treason. In one scene, a patient’s relative asks Yasmin to refer her to a “doctor qualified in Britain”. Yasmin asks if she means a white doctor; in a sane world, Yasmin’s response would be entirely appropriate. Instead, NHS management instruct her to undergo “diversity awareness and sensitivity” training. She is also told to sign a letter of apology to the aggrieved woman. The logic of this is summed up by Joe: “'Calling someone racist is worse than being racist?’”

Racism – actual or imagined, and its different forms – is present everywhere. When a white novelist condescendingly calls a younger black novelist “boy”, he realises his mistake, but it’s too late. That one word conjures up a whole history of racial prejudice and white entitlement. It is not always as cut and dried as this. When at one point, Yasmin’s best friend hears about Harriet and Anisah’s friendship, she accuses Harriet of a more subtle prejudice: “exotification” and “Orientalism”. As is true in real life today, every conversation is a weighted one, with a nervy political subtext, a tension that something said will result in ostracism or outrage, that it will ruin lives.

HeraldScotland:

The atmosphere of the novel captures the zeitgeist, with its debates on identity politics, cultural appropriation, the legacy of Empire, competing histories, and sexual promiscuity. Ali, rather expertly, does not let this cloud the premise of her novel: can love, or marriage, survive without secrets and lies? When Ali is in the right tone, she’s a terrific writer: the timing and political acuity of her comedy is spot-on. Elsewhere, she doesn’t have quite the same energy. Still, there is enough quality writing here to suggest that Love Marriage deserves to be just as popular as Brick Lane.