Till sex do us part: Shuma Raha reviews Monica Ali’s ‘Love Marriage’

A funny and engaging novel about race, identity, love, sexuality, feminism and much else, in today’s multicultural Britain

May 09, 2022 02:43 pm | Updated 02:46 pm IST

After her impressive debut with Brick Lane (2003), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Monica Ali had made it a point to veer away from writing about the south Asian immigrant experience. But those experiments proved underwhelming. In fact, her last novel, Untold Story (2011), part conspiracy theory, part a fanciful tale about Princess Diana, drew serious flak from critics. With Love Marriage, Ali, who is a British author of Bangladeshi descent, returns to more familiar ground. But Love Marriage is no Brick Lane redux. Around the kernel of the Bengali immigrant experience in London, Ali confects an engaging novel about race, identity, love, sexuality, feminism and much else, in contemporary Britain.

Yasmin Ghorami, a 26-year-old doctor training in geriatric care at St. Barnabas Hospital in London, is engaged to be married to Joe Sangster, also a doctor at the same facility. Yasmin’s parents Shaokat and Anisah, who had migrated to the U.K. from Kolkata, approve of the match because Joe’s profession as a medic makes him “automatically suitable”. When the book opens, Yasmin is about to take them to meet Joe’s flamboyant feminist mother, Harriet, who lives in a big house in an upscale area of London.

Unfounded fear

Yasmin is apprehensive about the meeting, since her future mother-in-law is everything her parents are not. While the word “sex” is never mentioned in the Ghorami household, Harriet had once posed for nude photographs, and her upcoming book is a treatise on the penis. She is also embarrassed about the way Shaokat and Anisah will comport themselves in front of the elegant Harriet. Her father, a doctor, is a grave, plodding, self-important man; her mother Anisah is a warmer soul, but her style of dressing is wildly gauche and her idea of a smart outfit is usually a violent mashup of the East and the West. In honour of the occasion, Anisah makes a mass of pakoras and other savouries for Harriet and takes them along in Tupperware boxes packed into carrier bags. And over-cautious Shaokat insists on setting off extra early, thus arriving at Harriet’s place a full, unfashionable hour before the appointed time.

But contrary to Yasmin’s fears of a clash of cultures and ensuing social disaster, the meeting proves to be convivial. Harriet, who can out-liberal the most assiduously liberal amongst her upper class set, surprises everyone by suggesting that the young couple have an Islamic wedding. It instantly endears her to Anisah, but Yasmin, who is a-religious, is aghast at the idea.

Soon, she has other things to worry about than the format of her wedding ceremony. It turns out that Joe has been unfaithful to her. He confesses his lapse and she forgives him. Yet, almost immediately, she plunges into an explosive affair with a senior doctor at the hospital. The revenge sex feels great, and her impending marriage no longer seems like the made-in-heaven kind that she had thought it to be.

Unexpected twists

Ali keeps the plot racing along and throwing up lots of unexpected twists. On the way, the narrative also presses all the hot buttons that it set out to press. At the hospital, Yasmin faces racism from patients’ kin who want a real (read: white) doctor to attend to their loved ones. When she calls out this racist attitude, she is reprimanded by the hospital administration, led, ironically, by a senior doctor who is also brown.

No less ironic is her father Shaokat’s rigid class consciousness. Despite his own humble origins — he started out as a chai wallah — Shaokat is coldly contemptuous of his son Arif’s white working class girlfriend. Ali also makes gentle fun of the likes of Harriet, whose repudiation of class snobbery manifests itself chiefly in her enthusiasm for collecting around herself all manner of ‘diversity’ like so many charming curiosities.

Harriet strikes up an unlikely sisterhood with Anisah, and even offers her refuge in her house when Anisah walks out on Shaokat in protest against his tyrannical ways. Under Harriet’s tutelage, Yasmin’s mother blossoms into a “feminist” — and, unbelievably, this transforms her from a devout, stay-at-home, pakora-frying matron into someone who probably has a dalliance with a young lesbian performance artist.

Multiplicity of worthy themes

Love Marriage has other issues to delve into — sex addiction, dysfunctional relationships and the use of psychotherapy to overcome them, the debate over hijab, an over-stretched NHS, Islamophobia… There’s also a tongue-in-cheek nod at the arbiters of matters literary. At an awards show, someone tells a Black author to stick to writing about what he knows best. Ali probably heard that a lot when she was attempting to write on subjects not rooted in her own immigrant background.

The multiplicity of worthy themes can make Love Marriage feel a bit overladen at times. But Ali manages to keep it all together without extinguishing the easy-read, comedic style of the book. The conclusion of the novel, though, is a bit of an anti-climax. It is almost as if the author decided that now that the characters had dealt with the disruptive fireworks in their lives, it was time for them to settle down to their more sedate destinies.

Love Marriage is extremely funny in parts, and that’s not only on account of Yasmin’s parents, who are quite Dickensian in their idiosyncrasies. But though they are vividly etched, their Bengaliness is never in evidence. Ali does throw in an occasional Bangla word or phrase such as “kyabla” (idiot) or “nikuchi korechhe” (damn it!) to remind readers (or herself?) that this is a story centred around a Bengali immigrant family, but the words sound tacked-on, and could as easily have been left out of what is, primarily, a novel about today’s multicultural Britain.

Love Marriage; Monica Ali, Virago, ₹899

The reviewer is a journalist and author.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.