Monica Ali's new novel starts with the beautifully drawn characters and detail you'd expect from an author whose first book, Brick Lane, captivated millions and was shortlisted for several major prizes. Joao, a peasant living in the Portuguese village of Mamarossa, emerges into the "tired morning light" thinking he's seen a scarecrow in the woods: "Joao walked out beneath the moss-skinned branches thinking only this: eighty-four years upon the earth is an eternity. He touched Rui's boots. They almost reached the ground. 'My friend,' he said, 'Let me help you.'''
Joao and Rui - in echoes of Brokeback Mountain - meet as hungry young lads in the back of a cattle wagon heading for somewhere "east", where there is promise of work and food. They hustle and scavenge together, sleeping in the open as they wait for salvation.
Their poverty is punctuated only by the lust Joao feels for Rui, and the occasional, futile dissent they witness against the rule of the Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Their lives diverge and intersect over the years, until that fateful day when Joao, 84 and still poor, finds Rui hanging by a thick rope from a tree outside the lonely shack he calls home.
This was a tender and painful start to what I hoped would be a novel pulling together Joao and Rui's lives with the landscape of the Alentejo region. But chapter two fast-forwards into the modern day, and the lives of new characters: Stanton, a morose, debauched and listless British writer; Vasco, a likeable but grossly obese and frustrated café owner suffering from "groinsweat"; Dieter, a German tourist who appears for a chapter and a half only to moan viciously about Portugal and his life there; and the Potts family.
Strangely for a novel set in Portugal, there are a depressingly large number of Brits. The Potts are trailer trash of the lowest grade. China, the father, is stoned, drunk and spineless. His wife, Chrissie, is a zombie who's disengaged completely from life. Their daughter, Ruby, steals things and sleeps with anyone and everyone. Only Jay, their young son, shows spirit and promise.
But this book isn't about him at all. In fact, it's difficult to say what it is about. Each chapter picks up the banal and static life of yet another character, often tied only loosely to the village. There are Huw and Sophie, more British tourists; Teresa, a girl who dreams of escape; and Eileen, who appears incongruously in chapter five, speaking in the first person about a life hardly worth sharing. The list goes on, until you've lost track and slightly lost the will to live.
Brick Lane's characters were stifled by their circumstances, compelling the reader to urge them on. Alentejo Blue's main characters (if they can be described as such) are just stifled, and inspire nothing much apart from irritation and indifference. The writer, Stanton, has come to Mamarossa to impel himself to write a book. Bored, he meanders through half a chapter until he meets the boy, Jay, who is also . . . bored.
Through Jay, Stanton meets Chrissie, who is covered in flee bites, and her husband China, a foul-mouthed brute. Stanton, rather unconvincingly, agrees to bring his truck to their filthy, reeking home to help China tow away a dead cow. The cow's head obliges, revealing a nest of maggots. Chrissie vomits. Stanton is invited in for a beer and, when China's back is turned, he and Chrissie have a short, ugly, pointless shag behind the barn.
The sky was turning red. Her lips were hideous orange. She put the bucket down and took a step back, kicking it over. He kissed her without taking her in his arms. She did not seem surprised. She did not attempt to hold him but her tongue was active, forceful. Brandy and a sharp tang of vomit. "Back there," he said and went up to the wall. He turned her around and lifted her skirt and made short work of it . . . She did not cry out or move her hips or even deepen her breath.
So why do we care? We don't. Not when Stanton shags Chrissie's daughter, Ruby; not when China finds out and says nothing much; not when the book ends, with another episode involving a fight and more vomit and a village fête where all the characters gather but nothing much happens.
There is some lyrical writing: "Thin ribbons of red dust shifted over the [pool's] mosaic floor. A grasshopper drifted along on its back. A leaf spun in slow motion and rested." But, overall, Alentejo Blue falls short not just of Brick Lane's artistry; it falls short of being a coherent story.
Tarquin Hall is the author of "Salaam Brick Lane: a year in the new East End" (John Murray)