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Reading Group Roundup: Brick Lane

The report this month comes from HMP Thameside where Maggie Gallagher is the PRG co-ordinator for the remote reading group.

Thameside’s remote group was created as a way of keeping alive reading and sharing views about books during lockdown. Chosen books are distributed to members individually, together with a feedback form for them to write responses. These are then collected and summarised by the volunteer facilitator so members can find out what each other thought about the book. The group is still going alongside a face to face one because there is still demand, especially from prisoners who work full-time and cannot attend the library for the live sessions. It has been a great success and won a PRG award last year.

Several months ago the group read Monica Ali’s acclaimed Brick Lane. It deals with immigrant (particularly Bengali) experience in London, patriarchal values and a woman’s erotic awakening. It’s a riveting tale, densely plotted and beautifully told.

Members grappled with the complexity of the tale and the many themes and issues that are interlaced. Protagonist Nazneen is plucked from her village in Bangladesh to come to London to marry a man more than twice her age. She is expected to behave demurely as a good Bengali wife, concentrating on raising children and earning a little through her job as a seamstress doing ‘piece-work’ at home. Her husband Chanu feels he has failed in London and wants to return to Bangladesh. Can he persuade Nazneen to return? Can he make her?

But Nazneen has changed, she has met a young radical, Karim, and begun an intense physical relationship with him – an act so at variance with the dictates of her culture that there is no going back to the simple Bengali village girl she once was. The group debated whether Nazneen could, realistically, ever return to Bangladesh.

Overwhelmingly, they said ‘No’. The main reasons given related to the freedom that Nazneen had discovered in Britain, which was contrasted with the restrictions and tight rules in Bangladesh. However, one reader put his own gloss on this –

“I think Nazneen would never leave a country where even if you don’t work you are given a place to live and even if you don’t have a job they give you money,”

-implying that life was simply too easy in the UK – why would any immigrant ever go back? Another reader pointed out that if Nazneen went back to Bangladesh, ‘she’d be seen as “tarnished goods” and could even be in danger and have no rights.

Perhaps the most perceptive comment in answer to this question came from the reader who wrote,

‘despite not being fully integrated into British society, [Nazneen] had been changed enough by the experience… that Bangladesh was now a foreign country to her; like all our childhoods are to us when adults.’

Other themes touched upon included the role of fate in the novel – Nazneen was left for dead when born, it having been wrongly assumed she was stillborn – and issues of fate and whether to attribute incidents and outcomes to it arise frequently. Other topics include the passivity of the woman’s role, the need of the husband to be in control, the extent to which Chanu knew of (and tolerated) his wife’s affair, the place of ‘true love’ in relationships, the changes in immigrants as they become second and third generation immigrants and the change in their relationship to both the ‘home’ country and the new country.

If your prison doesn’t have a reading group, encourage your librarian to have a look at and email if they would like to receive updates and resources from us. PRG is part of Give a Book.

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