Thursday, December 04, 2014

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue - Review

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue was a random buy from Blossom's many years ago. I had heard of Monica Ali thanks to her acclaimed debut novel, Brick Lane. I hadn't read Brick Lane, but this book, her second, promised me the story of a town told through the stories of many of its residents and visitors. I bought it for the princely sum of 130 rupees (the price tag is still on the back cover).

After I got home, I discovered that I couldn't read beyond the first two pages of the book. The beginning, a man named Joao coming out of his house early one morning to discover a friend's body hanging from a branch, somehow didn't make me want to read on.

The book's jewel-pink cover has been glaring at me from the bookshelf since then. I used to finger it guiltily once in a while, but I never actually opened it. You know how it is - if you start a book and then don't finish it, you develop a mental block about it and you can somehow never get yourself to get back into it again.

But a couple of weeks ago, I decided that it was Time. I would finally Read the Book and Put the Ghost to Rest. To encourage myself, I opened the book randomly somewhere in the middle, and what I read was reasonably interesting - the narrator was not a morbid old man, but a harmless English female tourist.

"Fine," I thought, "I'll somehow get through the first few pages with the old man and the body, and then I'll see if I like it or not."

And that's what I did. For a while, it looked like I had done the right thing. The old man turned out to have an interesting past, so I didn't struggle too much to read the first chapter. Then the second chapter introduced me to an English writer chap who was spending some time writing in the town (which is called Mamarossa, by the way). The writer was actually more boring than the old man, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But then, just as I got invested in the writer, the chapter abruptly ended, and I was suddenly reading about the owner of the local cafe. And then, a few pages on, about an English boy whose family had somehow landed up in Mamarossa. And so on... You get the picture.

Yes, yes, I know - that's exactly what the back cover of the book promised, and I shouldn't be complaining. But the thing is - I got a sense of neither the town nor the people. None of the chapters (I can't call them stories) really end satisfactorily. Most are vignettes, and most feel like the last few pages are missing. I kept wondering what the point of all this was.

Sure, there are a couple of themes that you can see if you look closely enough. Many of the residents of Mamarossa just want to leave and settle abroad, while many others (the writer, the English family, one of the tourists) want to just settle here. We all want to get away from the everyday reality of our existence, move to some far-away fairy tale land that we believe will be better, where we believe we will be happier.

The other theme is about the difference between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The writer, for example. He thinks he's pretty sexy, but here's how one of the visiting English tourists sees him, "He was the kind of person you felt sorry for but went out of your way to avoid. He was patronizing and probably misogynist and his mouth was unnaturally moist."

And it's also about how relationships can sometimes look totally different from the perspectives of the two people in the relationship. In many of the relationships portrayed in the book, one person is unhappy, while the other person is happy and blissfully unaware of the other person's feelings.

The last chapter reads like a belated attempt to get things together. All the characters finally come together, and things happen, small-towny things. But again, there's no "closure" (I hate that word, but how apt it is in some cases).

When you've had as phenomenally successful a first book as Monica Ali did, you might react in two ways. You might suddenly find yourself under so much performance pressure that you develop Writer's Block. Or you might go in the opposite direction and think that everything you write is awesome - pure gold that people are just waiting to lap up.

Well, the latter seems to have happened with Monica Ali. Either that, or she was just indulging herself - publishing some material she wrote for practice. And don't get me wrong - the woman can write. I just wish she had put her talents to better use to give us a more fulfilling book. 
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