Who's afraid of the sophomore slump? Certainly not literary wunderkind Monica Ali, who follows up her prizewinning debut novel, Brick Lane, with Alentejo Blue, a stunning work of episodic fiction that has our booksellers buzzing. In a series of vignettes that fall midway between short stories and sequential chapters, Ali imagines a claustrophobic little village in rural Portugal inhabited by a small group of people whose lives are steeped in unshakable sadness and linked by the accident of place. Marked by the beautifully crafted prose that catapulted the author onto Granta's prestigious once-a-decade list of the 20 best young British writers, Alentejo Blue is a melancholy mood piece that unfolds with the grace of an elegy.
In these pages, Ali seems to be teasing out the question of how writing can be used to convey psyches with differing levels of perceptiveness. The chapters are notionally rooted by place, but they bear surprisingly little resemblance to one another — they're like soil samples taken from different corners of a vast and varied terrain, with nothing linking them but the accident of their geography. Ali seems intent on showing that geography can be illusory: her characters live and breathe not so much in the Alentejo that surrounds them as in the cul-de-sacs and alleys of their own thoughts.
The New York Times
Ali's 2003 debut, Brick Lane, was a brilliant family saga told largely from within a Bangladeshi woman's apartment on London's ramshackle East End. Ali, who was born in Dhaka and grew up in London, sets her sophomore effort in a similarly struggling community, the rural Alentejo region of Portugal, where cork prices are falling, the region is still healing after the brutal Salazar regime and the locals don't quite care to cater to tourists. But where Brick Lane was quietly symphonic, this blues-like novel is more of a dirge: Joao, in old age, comes upon his old friend (and sometime lover), Rui, hanging from a tree, his Communist dreams dashed; the English Potts family scrapes by as indolents-in-exile; the writer Stanton, also British, works away on a second-rate literary biography; tavern-keeper Vasco sadly and silently reminisces about his marriage to an American, Lili; and young Teresa is preparing to leave the village for an uncertain future "outside." The simultaneous sense of stasis and great change is Ali's forte, and her characters' perceptions are sharp. But when anyone other than the Brits speak, it's as if Ali is trying to ventriloquize an incompletely acquired dialect. The characters' lives generate little tension, much like the pinball machine in Vasco's cafe that Stanton plays badly. (June 20) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Using luminous, heartfelt language, the award-winning Ali (Brick Lane) weaves a tapestry of human frailty. A motley collection of natives, tourists, and expatriates lives and works in Mamarrosa, a small village in the Alentejo region of Portugal. United by their quiet burdens, Ali's characters wait and hope for change but cannot bring themselves to exert any efforts on their own behalf. Instead, they pin their hopes on the return of Marco Afonso Rodrigues, who earned a fortune abroad and is coming back to Mamarrosa for his own mysterious purposes. Readers who prefer description and setting to plot will appreciate the story's leisurely pace and meticulous attention to scenic detail. Though Ali assigns a new narrator to each chapter, sacrificing character development in favor of theme, the brief, tantalizing glimpses of private heartbreak each character reveals are both touching and compelling. Overall, the novel compares favorably with Carson McCullers's The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter as a study of collective despair and frustrated hopes. Recommended for all medium to large fiction collections.-Leigh Anne Vrabel, Carnegie Lib. of Pittsburgh Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The British Ali follows her stunning debut (Brick Lane, 2003) with these linked stories set in a Portuguese village. Alentejo is an agricultural region of Portugal. Outside the village of Mamarrosa, Joao, an old peasant, makes a shocking discovery. His lifelong friend Rui has hanged himself in the woods. Rui was once tortured for his opposition to the Salazar dictatorship; he had also, before his marriage, spent a night making love to Joao. It's an effective opening story, with its calm ruefulness, and a historical marker for Ali's look at a contemporary Portuguese backwater, where traditional customs co-exist with cell phones and Internet cafes, and when foreigners (notably Brits) are trickling in. Some are expatriates. There's the cynical middle-aged writer, Stanton, working on a novel about Blake, and his disreputable neighbors, the Potts. The father is "on the run," though we don't know from what; he has a doormat of a wife and a teenaged daughter who's a slut. The sex-starved Stanton will bed mother and daughter both. Then there are the tourists, also Brits. Young Huw and Sophie have rented a house; Sophie has a history of depression and is experiencing pre-wedding jitters. The locals are on the move too. Twenty-year-old Teresa, who works at a deli, is off to London to work as an au pair; Marco, who left years ago and is rumored to have become a wealthy resort developer, is returning. The whole village is buzzing. Will he put Mamarrosa on the map? He arrives with a shaven head, a cape and enigmatic one-liners. Ali, so sure-footed in developing the immigrant Londoners of Brick Lane, seems at a loss to know what to do with him; the same goes for Stanton and the Potts, who implausiblyreform themselves. What's lacking is the discipline that stand-alone stories might have imposed. The author roams through many voices and perspectives, but the characterizations are superficial. The drastic change of scene, though maybe necessary for artistic growth, has left Ali oddly adrift.
"The beauty of Ali's writing gives her a starring role in this literary generation." USA Today
"This stunningly crafted fiction will knock you off your feet." O, The Oprah Magazine
"With its supple prose and acute insights...Alentejo Blue establishes definitively that Monica Ali is a major literary talent." Entertainment Weekly
"The prodigiously gifted Monica Ali demonstrates her ability and hints at the breadth and variety of her interests." The New York Times