Warm and big-hearted, this novel is a delight

Review: Vivien Horler

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali (Virago)

Some books you read through a sense of duty, others you read for fun but can easily put aside, and some fully engage you so that each time you return to them it is with interest and joy.

Love Marriage, in which Monica Ali once again explores the theme of Muslim minorities in Britain among other topics, was one of those, a novel that engrossed me.

Yasmin Ghorami and her fiance Joe Sangster, both young London doctors, are planning their wedding. Yasmin’s parents, immigrants from India, seem not too bothered that she is marrying a non-Muslim, and Joe’s writer mother Harriet, wealthy, an outspoken feminist and force of nature, seems positively to welcome the prospect of a “mixed” marriage.

Yasmin believes the fact her parents, back in India, had a love marriage, is behind the fact they seem to welcome Joe into the family.

But she is concerned as to how the families will mesh. While Harriet is outspoken and quite capable of showing Yasmin’s parents her collection on Indian erotica, Yasmin’s family the very opposite. And Yasmin cringes at the prospect of her mother taking carrier bags and Tupperwares full of Indian delicacies to the dinner where the parents will meet for the first time.

Joe is only the third man Yasmin has slept with, and she is hugely grateful for his niceness, his concern and his love. But of course not everything is as wonderful in their world as it first appears. Joe, it turns out, has a secret, and when Yasmin finds it out, she is devastated.

It’s not only her relationship that is taking taking strain. Her work in the dementia ward at St Barnabas Hospital is stressful and bedevilled by vindictive boss and a shortage of staff.

Things get worse when the white relative of a patient demands to see “a proper British doctor”, and waves off Yasmin’s explanation that she is both British born and trained. This prompts Yasmin to speak to her sharply, a complaint is lodged, and Yasmin is sent on a sensitivity training course.

The issues of racism, racial micro-aggression and micro-insults also outrage Yasmin’s younger brother Arif, who claims to be making a documentary on Islamophobia. Arif tells Yasmin angrily: “Then there’s micro-insults which are unconscious, so the perpetrators aren’t even aware, but they micro-insult you by saying you speak really good English, or telling you you’re not really like a Muslim person at all because you’re so cool.”

Food for thought in our own society.

And there’s trouble at home too. Yasmin’s father, a GP, is appalled at Arif’s lack of ambition and his apparent failure to grow up. Things become much worse when it emerges Arif has made his girlfriend pregnant, and everyone’s too scared to tell Baba. Then when he comes home unepectedly early one day and finds his wife and daughter entertaining pregnant Lucy to tea, Baba is enfuriated not just at the pregnancy but at the fact the family had kept it secret from him.

When a raging Baba orders Arif out of the house and tells him not to come home again, Ma says if her son is no longer welcome in the family home, then neither is she. And she leaves.

Can any of the relationships be saved? Ali writes brilliantly about the ups and downs of family life, and also of the strains in a family where the parents are grateful for the life they have made in another country, while the locally born children have to learn to deal with the “micro-aggressions and micro-insults” they regularly encounter.

This is a wonderul, rich novel, full of extraordinarily drawn and realised characters and complications. I loved it.


One thought on “Warm and big-hearted, this novel is a delight

  1. Jenny Tait

    I’ve just finished reading this. I love the gentle way Ali writes the spoken words of Baba and Ma, making them sound unmistakably indian without caricaturing or mocking. Beautifully done.


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