It has been said of Jane Austen’s characters that their primary terror is of being expelled from the class of their birth. In this reading, the astringently measured dialogue and super-sensible alertness to the details of social existence that mark her writing are not stylistic adornment but a strategy for survival. Austen was acutely aware that to be a member of the lower gentry was to be forever gripping the last rung of the ladder, dangling over a proletarian abyss.
More than two centuries on, in her first novel in a decade, Monica Ali has taken this dynamic and turned it inside out. Now it is the second-generation children of migrants made good who must navigate the codes and caste markers of middle-class Britain for purposes of inclusion. It is they who must keep their wits at all times to maintain a place in the settled order.
Love Marriage is ostensibly a novel about the pleasures and pitfalls of cross-cultural romance, but it is also a narrative animated by intense anxiety about acceptance. It describes the contortions some perform to achieve the level of Englishness to which they aspire.
No character in the novel starts out more pretzel-shaped than Yasmin Ghorami. An attractive, intelligent, though naive and somewhat insubstantial young woman, Yasmin is a trainee doctor in her 20s who still lives at home and is set to be married to a handsome (and white) medical colleague.
Yasmin has given much of her life over to fulfilling the expectations of her father, Shaokat – a man who began life as a shoeless chai wallah on the streets of Calcutta but raised himself up, trained as a GP, married the daughter of a well-off Muslim family and eventually became partner in a South London medical practice – while feeling the guilt of a child who has inherited enough Anglo snobbery to find both her parents embarrassing.
Yasmin’s mother, Anisah, wears clashing mash-ups of Eastern and Western fashion. She hoards broken stuff from charity shops and speaks eccentric English. When the Ghorami family first visit Yasmin’s fiancé – Joe Sangster, a boyishly charming upper-middle-class type – and his famous, feminist firebrand writer mother, Harriet, in their North London home, “Ma” Ghorami mistakes a Howard Hodgkin painting on the wall for a child’s amateur splodge.
This meeting – the cause of strong apprehension on Yasmin’s part – ends in success. The senior Ghoramis take a liking to Joe, and Harriet particularly warms to Anisah, the more overtly religious of Yasmin’s parents. It is Harriet who comes up with the surprising suggestion that an imam should perform their children’s wedding service.
Yasmin is appalled by this outcome, which her mother leaps upon. Their local imam is grasping and vulgar; the mixed party of wedding guests will know her in ways she does not wish to be known. But it is this decision that begins, like a series of hairline cracks, to fracture the perfect surface of Yasmin and Joe’s relationship – and much else.
Love Marriage arrives almost two decades after Ali’s breakout debut of 2003, Brick Lane. That novel, too, was in setting and theme resolutely old fashioned, while also tracking the evolution of one woman’s stuttering feminist progress from quiet shame to a degree of self-possession. But this latest work, set in the recent present, is obliged to absorb a moment in which identity, whether racial, religious or sexual, has become a more fraught and consuming locus of dispute.
At such a point, Ali argues, the most subversive response to political matters leaching into every nook and cranny of the public sphere is to double down on story – narrative in its most generically innocent guises, such as romantic fiction – as a means of expressing the political within an artistic container.
This allows the author to embrace some simple pleasures. The relationships between women of differing ages, inclinations and cultural backgrounds in Love Marriage are adroitly done – as is Joe’s therapeutic dialogue with an American psychoanalyst named Sandor, in which the young man gradually unburdens himself of the secret that threatens his relationship with Yasmin.
Love Marriage might read like a romance novel, but its structure is bent towards the psychoanalytic. Just as Austen accorded her characters dialogue and agency in order of their emotional intelligence – fools in Austen often damn themselves with a single line and are never heard from again – Ali brings middle-class, middle-aged men into the story just long enough to hoist them with their own petards. She also shares the Romantic-era novelist’s narrative instinct to withhold essential information long enough to wrong-foot her heroine, and us alongside. Yasmin only realises her own pride and prejudice very late in the piece, and this understanding is all the more powerful for being belated.
While the cynical might suggest that Ali’s fictional solution to the problem of addressing identity too neatly comports with the exigencies of the publishing marketplace, there is no gainsaying the author’s talent for character and story. It is a novel concerned with the ways in which people and relationships stand or fall on an ability to get the stories they tell each other straight. It is also a narrative in which the damaging patterns repeated across generations must be acknowledged and understood before they can be undone.
And in a novel bristling with disagreements – between men and women, young and old, migrant and native, queer and straight – Love Marriage argues with sincerity that literature, like analysis, escapes the simplifications of propaganda by allowing characters freedom to argue eloquently, without insisting they reach some final agreement.
Virago, 512 pages, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "Love Marriage, Monica Ali".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription