Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

Maybe it's the cooking, maybe it's the recipe
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The Independent Culture

Those eagerly turning to Ali's follow-up, Alentejo Blue, might initially be appeased, but will ultimately feel disappointed. Set in the fictional village of Mamarossa, in Portugal's remote, unspoilt Alentejo region, a self-consciously disparate group of locals, expats, and holidaymakers live, love and sometimes collide in catastrophic ways, but mostly dream and regret.

More a series of montages than a cohesive novel, the book opens with Joao, an 84-year-old peasant, in the act of recovering from a cork tree as gnarled as himself the dangling body of Rui, his oldest, most beloved friend, a frequently imprisoned revolutionary in his youth, when he had openly opposed the Salazar regime. Together the men had toiled on workers' collectives, and learned "how to spit and how to fill up with indifference".

Stanton, a middle-aged English writer wrestling with a novelised version of the life of Blake, is finding it hard to concentrate away from his coterie of north London friends: "like deciding to commit suicide and trying to drown with your face in the washbasin". Alcohol and the heat provide a distraction, as does his increasing fascination with his compatriots the Potts, a straggling family who live in squalor with their dope and goats.

Jay, the winsome, solitary son, captures Stanton's true affection, but when his father, "China" offers: "my home is your house. Anything you want, you take it," Stanton readily obliges, by sleeping first with China's self-harming wife, Chrissie, then with Ruby, his partially deaf, over-sexed teenaged daughter. Stanton's association with the Potts comes to a swift conclusion when Ruby undergoes an illegal abortion, for the procuring of which Chrissie is later threatened with a murder charge.

Vasco, the vast café proprieter with an unvarying, unappetising menu ("Stanton had a fish that kept watching him as he ate it"), publicly boasts of his years spent as a cook in America, and sheds private tears for the wife he lost early. Now his twin obsessions are feuding and food.

Teresa is 20, a bright spark who holds down several jobs to support her widowed mother and younger, dissolute brother. She clutches at a secret opportunity to travel to London to work as an au pair, but first there is the much-anticipated loss of her virginity to her mechanic boyfriend, Antonio, when they would, "after two years of romance and negotiation give themselves freely, each to the other". Predictably this feted event turns sour.

Then there's Sophie and Huw, a newly engaged couple tense with pre-wedding nerves, who are snatching a holiday which will prove to be make-or-break for their already fragile relationship.

Spuriously and belatedly thrown into the mix is the return of prodigal local hero Marco, with ridiculously swirling cape and annoyingly inscrutable manner, who may or may not be going to build a multi-million pound hotel in the village, This last twist sums up what is wrong with the Alentejo Blue: the stories interlock but in a disjointed fashion. The finale, where all the characters, regardless of their place in the story, gather at a party, seems more a hasty assemblage to round off the book than a line-up for a punchy dénouement.

Ali's bold style is apparent in flashes, but overall it lacks depth. The locals are just so much background: stereotypes who watch Brazilian soap operas all day or slide into doleful, platitudinous observations. Ali seems more confident with the English characters, but abandons them once their stories ignite a flicker of interest. The landscape is faithfully, if monotonously evoked. It is as if the major themes of Brick Lane - community, displacement, the telling of tales, passion, political undercurrents - have been awkwardly transplanted to another environment, where they cannot flourish. As Joao notes at the beginning of the novel: "The tomatoes too would come early and turn a quick, deceiving red. They would not taste of anything." The same can unfortunately be said of this frustratingly diluted novel.

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