Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Blue Skies, a World Away from the Lane

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Blue Skies, a World Away from the Lane

Article excerpt

Byline: By Hannah Stephenson

It's tough following a mega-hit first novel but Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, is staying cool, as Hannah Stephenson discovers.

Pressure falls on any author whose first novel has been a mammoth hit but Monica Ali seems to take it in her stride.

Just three years ago her debut novel, Brick Lane, about a girl who is transplanted from a Bangladeshi village to a Tower Hamlets council estate through an arranged marriage, threw her into the spotlight.

Monica was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, longlisted for the Orange Prize and named newcomer of the year at the British Book Awards.

She had netted a reported pounds 200,000 advance from the publishers on the basis of just five chapters and received critical accolades when it was published.

How do you follow that? The 38-year-old seems unfazed. "Do I have to write Brick Lane II? No I don't. If my first book had been ignored, the task of sitting down to write another would be really hard for different reasons. You'd be thinking: why was nobody interested in the first? Was it really bad?"

Since Brick Lane, this likeable and highly intelligent Oxford University graduate has kept her old circle of friends and her feet firmly on the ground.

She reasons: "I was in my 30s with a young family. You know who you are by that stage and are wise enough to enjoy a bit of the media stuff without taking it to heart or letting it go to your head.

"If people build you up they are going to take you back down ( you have to keep a little bit of distance."

Her second novel, Alentejo Blue, centres on the picturesque Portuguese village of Mamarrosa, seen through the lives of a group of characters who either live there or are passing through.

It's a hugely different setting to Brick Lane and has so far received mediocre reviews, but the subject of displacement features heavily, as it did in her debut novel.

Alentejo Blue acts as an antidote to the romanticised, idyllic view of many people who dream of moving to a warm foreign country.

"There's a whole genre of literature that puts a gloss on Mediterranean picturesque places," she says. "This book shows you a side those books leave out. You might dream of a new life, but actually what happens is that you pack up your troubles and take them with you."

Monica had plenty of material to play with, as she and her husband, management consultant Simon Torrance, own an old farmhouse in a quiet village in Portugal which they have lovingly renovated.

She spends most of the school holidays there, is learning Portuguese and could happily spend more time there, although her husband's work keeps them in London.

But she had her share of headaches during renovation.

"The house had no electricity or water and no kitchen. It took longer than expected to get it sorted. It's been a labour of love.

"A lot of the inspiration for the book has been drawn from observing the local flora and fauna, as it were. …

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