Monica Ali's very popular first novel, Brick Lane, was accorded a more-than-literary importance. Its depiction of Asian life in the East End of London was an eye- and ear-opener for many readers, while also managing to offend some who considered its world to be their property. The book became the arena for a conflict between artistic freedom and cultural prescription.
In her new novel, whether deliberately or through the unbiddable workings of the imagination, Ali has declined to satisfy any expectation that she would offer more of the same. Alentejo Blue is set in rural Portugal, among natives, expatriates and tourists. More significantly, perhaps, it is a series of adjacent episodes rather than a fully orchestrated novel. It has themes but not much development, opportunities galore but little inclination to take them
Mamarrosa is a poor village whose relationship with modernity is exemplified by the fact that when an internet café opens it is not in fact online and the ice cream smells of fish. Half-heartedness, incompetence and parsimony reign. People compete to pronounce ever-more banal general truths. To leave is almost beyond imagining, except for Teresa, who wants to be an au pair in London. If there is to be salvation, it must come from the return of Marco, long gone to make his fortune. But - have you guessed? - Marco is not exactly what people suppose him to be.
Into this sludge of discontent Ali introduces a drunken English writer, Stanton. More interestingly, she introduces him to the family of China, a burnt-out alcoholic ex-junkie and ex-dealer, on the run. China, his shrivelled wife Chrissie, their sad tart of a daughter and bored but decent son deserve a book in themselves but, like Teresa, they don't get one. China's womenfolk get Stanton, in the perfunctory way of the kind of sex that happens in books.
There are other, more temporary visitors. Eileen and her husband are miserably holidaying while digesting the news that their son is gay. The husband likes facts; the wife impressions. Does this qualify as a crisis? Not really: they haven't the energy. Sophie, a teacher, is spending half-term driving about with her fiancée, Huw, a rich banker. Their wedding plans have got completely out of control, and the trip is intended as a moratorium on discussions of guests and bridesmaids' dresses. Sophie feels her dormant depression and metaphysical despair re-awakening (the visit to the catacomb doesn't help) and has doubts about getting married at all.
It is hard to give a flavour of Alentejo Blue without accepting the invitation to satire. The book should be a chamber piece, rich in design and moral understanding, but it reads as "late" work undertaken too soon. It rubs up against serious themes - love, endurance, time, making do - only to move quickly on. As yet Ali lacks the dramatic economy which her form requires.
The novel seems strangely modular, relying on the reader's consent to a kind of shorthand which recalls the empty "issues" and mechanical gravitas of soap opera. Predictably, the political and historical dimensions - Salazar's version of Fascism, the failure of revolution to keep the land from slipping back into the hands of the rich - are no sooner introduced than they are tidied away.
Such writing is doomed to exist not for itself but as an example of a genre, holiday reading to be forgotten as soon as it is consumed. None of this will stand in the way of the book's popularity, but there are enough passages with point and suggestive power to indicate that Ali has more serious work to do. She can write with appealing clarity. It would be a pity if she thought that the empty efficiency of language and style practised in Alentejo Blue were evidence of what she might really achieve.
Sean O'Brien's version of 'The Inferno' is due from Picador in the autumn