Alentejo Blue

Monica Ali creates too many characters to properly serve in her second novel after Brick Lane.

A beautiful biracial woman with a posh degree secures a fat advance for her debut novel, prompting heaps of publicity and jealousy. The London-set book, a glorious examination of identity and culture, wins much acclaim and humbles the critics. The similarities between Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Monica Ali's Brick Lane end there. Whereas Smith employed linguistic pyrotechnics and a Dickensian-length character roster, 2003's Brick Lane was a subtle, slow burn. With its 400-plus pages centered on one Bangladeshi family, Ali's graceful writing unveiled her characters with the speed of frozen gravy, until finally reaching an unabashedly emotive and triumphant ending. In that sense, Ali's sophomore novel is an admirable structural departure; the chapters—interlocking vignettes, really—are all set in the same village in Portugal's Alentejo region, each centering on a different character. Harry Stanton, the frustrated Brit writing a book on Blake, befriends the scrappy Potts family (particularly wife Chrissie). Among the Mamarrosa natives, the alternately despicable and sympathetic cafe owner, Vasco, is haunted by the death of his wife. Teresa, a shopgirl, has just been accepted to be an au pair in London. Occasionally, a reference is made to Marco Afonso Rodrigues, a local real-estate developer with his eyes allegedly set on building a resort there. Ali's writing is subtle, save for the occasional blunt aphorism. ("We send out proclamations and fancy we are making History and forget that it has made us.") Present, too, are her keen observations—"Mae always stood a certain way, with her hand on her hip, to let everyone know she wasn't falling for it, whatever it was." If it sounds like I'm withholding major developments, I'm not; there simply are none. As slow as her last book, Blue now adds the wrong lesson from Zadie Smith: a laundry list of characters. At the precise moment there's a hint of complexity to these sad and familiar types—the frustrated couples on vacation, the young woman oh-so ready to lose her virginity, etc.—the chapter ends, and another vignette begins. Rodrigues eventually comes to town, haphazardly assembling everyone for a predictable denouement: You could call the book A Few Days of Solitude. Only 240 pages long, it's a wonder of subtle perception about a village of characters the reader never had enough time to fall in love with.

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