Magazine article The Spectator

Fragments of Village Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Fragments of Village Life

Article excerpt

ALENTEJO BLUE by Monica Ali Doubleday, £14.99, pp. 297, ISBN 9780385604864 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Brick Lane, Monica Ali's first novel, sold a great many copies and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It was also criticised by those guardians of the public conscience who write letters to newspapers on the grounds of cultural tourism. Despite her impeccable Bangladeshi origins, these detractors alleged, the Oxford-educated Ms Ali was clearly unqualified to write about the realities of life in the polyglot East End. No doubt one or two of the same criticisms will be levelled at her choice of a sequestered Portuguese village as the setting for novel number two.

For all the modesty of its style and some highly uncontentious subject matter, Alentejo Blue is a risky enterprise.

The risk lies in Ali's decision to construct what is not so much a novel with a large and interconnected cast as a collection of short stories whose characters stray occasionally onto the margins of each other's lives. An old man stumbling upon the hanged body of his childhood friend; a local girl avid to lose her virginity before she lights out for London;

Stanton the English expat, labouring crapulously over his novel; the heroically dysfunctional Potts family, adrift in moist, bohemian chaos: each offers something to the tableau of village life without ever quite giving the book a unifying force or an obvious trajectory.

What happens in Mamarossa? Like most exercises in compartmentalisation, some bits are better than others.

Stanton's dealings with the frightful Pottses, his affair with down-at-heel Chrissie and seduction (or vice versa) of her Morlock daughter, have a nervy endof-tether quality, while not disguising his (and their) oddly generic quality or excusing the hoary quotation from Blake -- 'Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire' -- that pops up on his computer screen after that first al fresco frolic. …

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