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Through a lens sharply

15 May 2022 - 00:00 By Bron Sibree

After a 10-year hiatus and what she describes as a loss of confidence, Monica Ali talks about her fifth novel with Bron Sibree 

'Love Marriage' is her fifth novel.
Monica Ali 'Love Marriage' is her fifth novel.
Image: Yolanda de Vries

Love Marriage ★★★★★
Monica Ali
Virago Press

Ask British author Monica Ali anything at all about her much acclaimed new novel, Love Marriage — or for that matter, her stellar literary career — and she’ll answer  with disarming honesty. There is nothing rehearsed or glib about this author who first shot to literary stardom with her debut, best-selling novel Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003, and adapted into the 2007 film of the same name. She’ll happily talk about the foibles of each of the characters that populate Love Marriage — her fifth novel — as if she has known them all her life. Yet she’ll just as readily admit that even now, two months after its release, and after speaking about it to many readers, she remains at a loss to “sum it up in a couple of sentences. I think it is always tough for writers to sum up a book. It takes me a few months to be able to, but with this book in particular; it doesn’t really fit into a box.”

But the one thing it is not about, insists Ali, “is a clash of cultures. I’ve seen this book described as about a culture clash. Yes, it’s multicultural, but there is no clash of cultures, it’s really not as simple as that.”

Indeed, Love Marriage hinges on the upcoming marriage between 26-year-old trainee doctor Yasmin Ghorami, whose parents were originally from India, and fellow doctor, Joe Sangster, the son of a famous feminist mother, Harriet, who once posed nude for a magazine photo, exposing her genitalia.

“Harriet,” chuckles Ali, “would be a lot for anyone to meet. She is very outspoken and strident in her opinions and very open about sex, which the Ghoramis never mention. Harriet is also truly posh, she’s upper middle class, so it’s the class distinctions and all those areas that I’m probing, and finding the pain points.”

From the moment she conceived of Love Marriage, Ali says, “I knew at one level that sex would be the thread on which all the narrative beads would be strung.” Yet in many ways,  the novel takes its cues from Jane Austen in that it starts out as a kind of comedy of manners, then deepens into something more profound.

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Austen’s work, and I’ve been inspired by her in a way for this book. She wrote about engagements, courtships and marriage endlessly and yet with that rather narrow domestic prism she was able to show quite a lot about society at that time. Today, we’re in a very different landscape, of course, but I think that the customs and rituals, expectations and family dynamics that surround the planning of a wedding can still be a useful lens onto the wider society.”

by Monica Ali.
Love Marriage by Monica Ali.
Image: Supplied

Ali’s sharp lens takes in class, gender, race, sexuality, all the generational and cultural tensions of contemporary society. She also peers into a little known corner of modern therapy, the vexations of  ageing, and much, much more besides. Her keenly observed characters and their dialogue are testament too, to her fabled humour and compassion. Yet any way you describe it — comedy of manners, family saga, social comedy — this brilliant and deeply engaging 500-page novel manages to slip conventional moorings as well as expectations as it unfurls a tale of love and misunderstandings, betrayals and long-held secrets with all the compulsive power of a thriller, complete with a sting in its tail.

Oxford-educated Ali has never been predictable on the page. A fervent believer that writers must keep challenging themselves, she has lived up to that since penning her best-selling debut, covering different ground in each of her subsequent novels, including Untold Story, her fourth, which reimagined a Princess Diana-like character’s post-fame life. Much has been made in media reports about the decade-long hiatus between Untold Story and Love Marriage and the loss of confidence that caused it.

I did have a loss of confidence,” says Ali, “and I stopped writing but when I wasn’t writing I got depressed and that fed even more into the lack of confidence, so it became for me a sort of downward spiral.”

Yet contrary to much reporting, she explains, it wasn’t negative reviews for Untold Story that shattered her confidence. “It was something much more fundamental for me, and it’s taken me quite a lot of therapy, frankly, to work it out. It was that feeling that my authenticity was being questioned. People would say things like ‘this is a bewildering choice of subject matter for this author’,” recalls Ali, who is the daughter of an English mother and a Bengali father and has lived in Britain all her life. “I am British so it is not as if I was stepping outside my experience, it was, actually, this is me, I was as fascinated with Diana as many, if not most, people in the UK were, so it was quite insulting really.”

Ali has long believed that all writing is political. “How can it not be?” she quizzes. “As George Orwell said, the idea that art, including writing should not be political is in itself a political notion.” An avid and eclectic reader, she also believes that reading can increase a person’s empathetic abilities. “But for that to happen,” says Ali, “the writer has to be able to empathise with his or her characters. Empathy is a key aspect of human existence and is absolutely fundamental to the writing of fiction,” she adds, “it is the beginning of all morality.”

Click here to buy Love Marriage


MONICA ALI ON THE BOOKS THAT HAVE INFLUENCED HER

by Jane Austen.
Emma by Jane Austen.
Image: Supplied

Emma by Jane Austen. I could call all Austen’s books influential, but Emma in particular is my favourite. Emma is just the most superb creation, right from the opening sentence: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich... had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” And, of course, we know from that that she's about to find a few things to vex and trouble her. Austen said in a letter, I think, to her niece, that she was going to write a heroine that nobody else would like, but that she was already very much in love with this character, Emma. And Emma is wrong about so much. She spends almost the entirety of the novel meddling and interfering and making assumptions and trying to plan these love matches between people and she's almost always wrong. And yet Austen is wrong, we do come to really love Emma in spite of all her flaws and idiosyncrasies and wrongheadedness. So I think she's definitely a bit of an inspiration for Yasmin as a character.

A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul. It’s just the best tragic comedy ever written and it is also a sideways look at colonialism and race and religion. I first read it in my teens but I still love it now and its humour is really important. I think that, especially when you're dealing with serious issues, it’s essential to find the comedy because without that our capacity, the human capacity, for self-delusion is almost limitless. But with humour we can see all the folly of our human striving and just embrace it with tenderness and with compassion. 

Emma by Jane Austen. I could call all Austen’s books influential, but Emma in particular is my favourite. Emma is just the most superb creation, right from the opening sentence: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich... had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” And, of course, we know from that that she's about to find a few things to vex and trouble her. Austen said in a letter, I think, to her niece, that she was going to write a heroine that nobody else would like, but that she was already very much in love with this character, Emma. And Emma is wrong about so much. She spends almost the entirety of the novel meddling and interfering and making assumptions and trying to plan these love matches between people and she's almost always wrong. And yet Austen is wrong, we do come to really love Emma in spite of all her flaws and idiosyncrasies and wrongheadedness. So I think she's definitely a bit of an inspiration for Yasmin as a character.

A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul. It’s just the best tragic comedy ever written and it is also a sideways look at colonialism and race and religion. I first read it in my teens but I still love it now and its humour is really important. I think that, especially when you're dealing with serious issues, it’s essential to find the comedy because without that our capacity, the human capacity, for self-delusion is almost limitless. But with humour we can see all the folly of our human striving and just embrace it with tenderness and with compassion. 

by VS Naipaul.
A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul.
Image: Suppled

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I'm sure that’s had a profound impact on so many people, particularly if they read it in their teenage years, as I did. I was 13 when I first read it. I heard double speak all around me and naturally as a teenager you're inclined to think that adults are hypocritical. But it also made me think about the news in a different way from that point on, a more questioning way. And it’s probably why I ended up studying philosophy, politics and economics. And at the risk of stating the obvious, it is as relevant now as ever. I mean “thoughtcrime” could be a term invented today in the culture wars.

The book that really influenced me in writing Love Marriage was In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, a non-fiction book by Gabor Maté — he is a Canadian medical doctor and a psychotherapist. And this book is a radical reframing of how we view all human development and he's an addiction specialist. He works with all kinds of addiction. He  makes these deep and surprising connections between an individual’s psychology and global issues, between the spiritual and the medical, between mental illness and politics. And the stories he tells about his patients and his insight into their psyches and what's made them the way that they are sort of combine it to reveal how addiction actually runs on a continuance through our society. How we can be addicted to so many things like social media or stress or shopping in order to medicate and conceal our fears or our pain. 

by Gabor Maté.
In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté.
Image: Supplied

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which is a quintet, so I’m cheating, but I just love them. They’re my comfort reading. Five volumes of family saga. The Cazalet family is a middle class, upper middle class family, and the books span from the 1930s to the 1950s, between the wars and post-war. Howard is no longer alive and she's still got plenty of fans but I think she's still underrated. She's such a sharp observer of human drama and psychology. And she writes about pain and loss and longing superbly well. I suppose it sounds a bit odd but I can always find comfort in that and in the depth of her characterisation and the keenness of her observation. I can always dive back in and find something new in that. We do get inside the head of some of her male characters but she focuses very much on the women’s lives and how constrained they can sometimes be, and how much more they have to give, and the sharpness with which their interior lives is drawn is something that I find really inspiring.

 



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