Early on in Love Marriage, British-Bangladeshi writer Monica Ali convinces the reader that she will extend an invitation to the wedding of her protagonists—Yasmin Ghorami and Joseph Sangster. Though both are born and raised in Britain and work as doctors, their childhoods and adult lives couldn’t be more different.
At the introductory dinner between the two families, you can feel the nerves on Yasmin’s behalf. Her mother, Anisah, takes it upon herself to cook a feast for the dinner at Sangster’s. Her medic dad, Shokat, insists on leaving cautiously early to avoid the traffic. Joe’s mother, Harriet, can’t wait to socialise with her Bangladeshi in-laws, while riding roughshod over Yasmin’s personal boundaries on the subject of planning her wedding—a situation that would feel familiar to most brides, especially in South Asian families.
This dinner opens into a world of secrets that its participants don’t anticipate. In the process of trying to appease their families, Yasmin and Joe agree to an elaborate, ritualistic ceremony that neither wants. Over time, the wedding plans act as triggers in escalating complex situations and intra-family tensions.
Anticipating the wedding, the reader is left with a can of worms—one filled with bad decisions and family secrets. Ali ties the knot with tender care and love, but it’s between the painstaking effort to be self-aware and the ownership to resolve personal crises that comes with self-awareness.
With each character’s perspective added to the story, she layers the thematic pegs, which include infidelity, feminist awakening, Islamophobia, Orientalism, inter-generational trauma and workplace politics. As a reader, swinging in and out of different perspectives feels like a roller-coaster ride between the characters. There is a problem of excess; there are more perspectives than you can recount, including the perspective of Joe’s psychotherapist, Sandor. At some point, it feels very much like being part of a wedding party, which always involves the delicate balancing act of managing egos and demands. There’s so much happening that you sometimes forget the central characters and focus on the stories of the crowd of others.
Secrets and sex go hand in hand in both households, despite the differences in their cultural heritage, which throw up varied reactions and attitudes to sex. The Ghorami household itself is dealing with a child born out of wedlock, sexual violence, questions of sexual identity, and adultery. The Sangster household, in turn, is dealing with repressed trauma, covert incest and sex addiction.
While Ali’s Booker Prize-shortlisted Brick Lane (2003) also addressed complex themes, especially infidelity, the treatment of the subject in Love Marriage is entirely different. Nearly all the decisions in the story are inspired and fomented by sex, which is used both as a narrative device as well as a means to portray characters taking ownership of themselves. Ali cuts short big reveals and confessions in favour of a clinical approach.
“In the Ghorami household, sex was never mentioned,” Ali writes at the start of the book. It’s a line that epitomises the ironic, tongue-in-cheek style that keeps this book immensely readable, fun even, despite the emotionally draining issues with which it deals.
Delhi-based Anisha Saigal is an entertainment and culture writer and researcher