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Brick Lane, Monica Ali’s first novel, sold a great many copies and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It was also criticised by those guardians of the public conscience who write letters to newspapers on the grounds of cultural tourism. Despite her impeccable Bangladeshi origins, these detractors alleged, the Oxford-educated Ms Ali was clearly unqualified to write about the realities of life in the polyglot East End. No doubt one or two of the same criticisms will be levelled at her choice of a sequestered Portuguese village as the setting for novel number two.
For all the modesty of its style and some highly uncontentious subject matter, Alentejo Blue is a risky enterprise. The risk lies in Ali’s decision to construct what is not so much a novel with a large and interconnected cast as a collection of short stories whose characters stray occasionally onto the margins of each other’s lives. An old man stumbling upon the hanged body of his childhood friend; a local girl avid to lose her virginity before she lights out for London; Stanton the English expat, labouring crapulously over his novel; the heroically dysfunctional Potts family, adrift in moist, bohemian chaos: each offers something to the tableau of village life without ever quite giving the book a unifying force or an obvious trajectory.
What happens in Mamarossa? Like most exercises in compartmentalisation, some bits are better than others. Stanton’s dealings with the frightful Pottses, his affair with down-at-heel Chrissie and seduction (or vice versa) of her Morlock daughter, have a nervy end-of-tether quality, while not disguising his (and their) oddly generic quality or excusing the hoary quotation from Blake — ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire’ — that pops up on his computer screen after that first al fresco frolic. The natives — either pining to get away or, like bar-owner Vasco, fixated on their brief glimpse of freedom in the world beyond — are a fairly anonymous lot. Ali’s gaze seems much sharper when it turns to passage migrants: the middle-aged Englishwoman seeking a respite from her exacting and dismissive husband; a holidaying bride-to-be whose relationship with her fiancé develops deep interior cracks.
Realising, perhaps, that these fugitive encounters need a focus, Ali weaves in occasional references to the homecoming ‘Marco Afonso Rodrigues’. Like the rest of the cast, mysterious Marco, who it is assumed ‘will come here and change things’, wanders into the proceedings and out of them again without fundamentally altering their procedural sheen. A self-consciously inclusive final chapter tries hard to create a mosaic of local life from these accumulated fragments. ‘There was a cold rinse in his chest that might have been mistaken for fear,’ Ali writes at one point of Stanton’s edgy manoeuvrings with complaisant Mrs Potts. Not all of Alentejo Blue strives quite so deliberately for effect. While neatly written, it is, for the most part, rather desultory.
D. J. Taylor’s latest books are On the Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism in Sport and Kept, A Victorian Mystery.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 3, 2006