I reviewed Monica Ali’s sophomore novel, Alentejo Blue, in the Baltimore Sun last weekend. While more sweeping and ambitious than her first book, Brick Lane, this novel proved less satisfying in the end. Ali is a deft and sometimes flat-out dazzling writer, and I was rooting for the book to succeed. But the form she chooses is a difficult one to make work: she strings together several short stories about different characters residing in the same small Portuguese town. Taken individually, the stories are compelling and wonderfully written. But she seems not to know how to finish the book as a whole.
The final story, encompassing all of the characters’ points of view and pushing uncertainly toward meaningful closure, just doesn’t make much of an impression. As a formal choice, this late move from limited to omniscient narration is an interesting failure–I appreciated the risk Ali took, but at the point it should have been peaking, my engagement with the book crashed and burned. As I said in the Sun:
Each of the first eight stories belongs utterly to a single character, steeped in that individual’s consciousness, sensibility and ethos. But Ali’s reversion to third-person omniscient narration in the last story is the real innovation and surprise – one that, alas, doesn’t have whatever effect was intended. Instead, it ends the reader’s journey on a flat tire, dispersing the separate intensities that had mounted in each boldly imagined, pristinely written story that came before.
Still, I found large swaths of the book pretty impressive and involving, and will continue reading the talented Ali.