I am sure she could have written what many - perhaps even her publishers - might have expected of her: another tale of Asian immigrant life in contemporary Britain. Instead, she has turned her back on Tower Hamlets in the East End of London to explore an entirely different landscape. Alentejo Blue is set in an impoverished southern province of Portugal - the "blue" of the title seems to refer to a shade of the colour unique to the region - that has remained all but untouched by the waves of holidaymakers and tourists that have been washing over the Iberian peninsula for decades.
The first chapter in particular is a tour de force.
An old man, Joao, sits by the body of his lifelong friend Rui, whom he found hanging from a branch of a year-old cork tree. As Joao's thoughts float from the present to the experiences some of them deeply secret that he shared with Rui, Ali gives her readers a deft, impressionistic lesson in the history of Portugal during the 20th century.
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Only relatively recently has the nation - still the poorest in Western Europe - begun to recover from the repression and stagnation of the year rule of the dictator Salazar that began in Not as notorious as Franco, the strongman next door, Salazar also persecuted socialists, communists and other undesirables and forged strong links with a hidebound, ultraconservative church hierarchy.
It was for those reasons that the waggish journalist Bernard Levin, writing in the early s, dubbed Portugal Britain's oldest and dirtiest ally.
Ali sketches the horrors of the Salazar years with a light but telling touch as Joao contemplates his friend's corpse. Her writing is assured and all the more moving and disturbing for its restraint. But at heart Alentejo Blue is concerned with the present, not the past. The inhabitants of Mamarrosa, the small town where most of the novel is set, are not much intent on politics and for many of them as Joao remarks at one point Portugal's dark past is no more than a dim memory at best.
Tourism and Identitary Conflicts in Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue
Here are "great plains stretched out like a golden promise Ali is much better when she gets closer to home, as with Stanton, the English writer who has come to the village looking for inspiration. He has the potential for independent life, as he sits at his computer longing to lose himself in his subject: "He set his jaw and willed himself submerged. It was hopeless.
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It was like deciding to commit suicide and trying to drown with your face in the washbasin. When both mother and daughter start a relationship with Stanton we become submerged in the tale, but then, like Stanton himself, we find ourselves trying to drown in a washbasin again as Ali loses interest in this set of characters and wanders off to another subject. We do see Stanton and the mad English family again, but this time from the mother's point of view.
With only 20 pages to sum up her life and situation, she rushes through her reading habits as a child, why she fell in love with her husband, and the differences between England and Portugal: "In England the council looks after the trees. It's not just the presence of more than one tourist in the book that makes you feel like a tourist when you're reading it. All the characters bow off too hurriedly, little sketches that never get fleshed out, people glimpsed from a train that is moving too quickly through a strange landscape. Even if you enjoy the ride, you can't help wishing that Monica Ali had chosen to write about somewhere she knew better, or wanted to know better.
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