There is love and marriage in Love Marriage, but above all there is sex. Yasmin Ghorami, a 26-year-old trainee doctor, is the daughter of conservative Indian parents who turn the TV off at the first sign of snogging. Joe, her medic fiancé, is the son of a flamboyant feminist with a colourful – and much discussed – sex life and a book in the works about men and their penises. Yasmin wonders if she is frigid; Joe wonders, out loud to a therapist, if he is too much the opposite. Red flags wave frantically – should a couple who take a whole month to kiss get engaged after five? – but Yasmin and Joe are willing to ignore them. For, like Yasmin’s parents’ marriage, theirs will not be arranged but born of true love. Or so the story goes.
This is Monica Ali’s first novel in a decade and, like a premature engagement, it could so easily have snapped under the weight of expectation. After the success of her 2003 Booker-shortlisted debut Brick Lane – a vibrant portrait of London’s British-Bangladeshi community – Ali described her “sense of shame and failure” over the chillier critical response to the three misfit books that followed, including one in which Princess Diana fakes her death and winds up working as a kennel maid in America. For some, this was too bewildering – perhaps, even, too brazen – a rejection of the “write what you know” doctrine.
Now, Ali has returned to the tried-and-tested subject matter of 20 years ago: Islam, multiculturalism, family, and sexual adventure. But Love Marriage is not a Brick Lane reboot. Whereas the latter concerns Nazneen, an uneducated Bangladeshi woman brought “from the village” to London for an arranged marriage, here our protagonist is a second-generation graduate who has fallen freely into a love match with a middle-class man. The white characters that were peripheral in Nazneen’s East End have now been moved to the centre: from their “chaste and cardamom-scented home”, the Ghoramis are thrust into the land of the liberal elites, where they must navigate artsy parties in the book-filled Primrose Hill townhouse of Yasmin’s future mother-in-law Harriet.
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It is this culture clash – interracial, interclass, inter-generational – that provides both the social commentary and comedy in a novel that takes an equal opportunities approach to poking fun. Yasmin’s father, Shaokat, is the proud patriarch fumbling for control; his wife, Anisah, is mocked for her unstylish malapropisms and clothes. Harriet has an emphatic drawl (guests “come to be stimulated, darling”) and a fetish for “authenticity” and performative progressivism. She pressures Yasmin into agreeing to a Muslim ceremony against her will, then wonders – with glee – how many of the “impeccable liberals” in her circuit will be exposed as Islamophobes. Once a (self described) enfant terrible, now she writes her memoir with a Montblanc. Ali’s characters are robust and sympathetic, but she is, like Harriet, no stranger to playful stereotyping.
There is enough adultery in this north-London drama to fill a Hampstead novel. As Harriet contemplates liberal guilt in her sun-drenched study, acts of infidelity – a one night stand, revenge sex, a lesbian affair – play out around her. Unbeknownst to her, she is partly to blame: Joe is struggling with sex addiction, which his therapist believes is related to “covert incest”. (Might he be expressing “sublimated hostility” towards his meddling mother? By Freud, the therapist almost says, I think we’ve got it!) When Yasmin discovers Joe has been unfaithful, she gets her own back by sleeping with a colleague called Pepperdine and finds, in his emotional unavailability, something soul-stirring.
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In Ali’s easy and direct prose, the only fidelity is to detail. The scenes set in Yasmin’s overburdened dementia ward are poignant and precise, as are Joe’s counselling sessions (Ali has spoken of her time in therapy during a three-year struggle with depression). These episodes help to ground a narrative that can tip over into melodrama: an unplanned pregnancy results in a beating, then a frenzied hospital dash and chance at redemption, while Anisah’s sexual liberation at the hands of a gay, spiky-haired performance artist might be cheering, but feels improbable.
Love Marriage has at least one too many storylines and a hundred too many pages. But, overstuffed though it may be, it is delightfully unstuffy. A tribute to freedom and self-exploration, Ali’s novel is, above all, a story about love – the bonds that it brings, and the shackles.
Love Marriage by Monica Ali
Little, Brown, 512pp, £18.99
This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War