The baby almost died. There was no midwife in attendance at the village hut in Bangladesh, for the mother thought the birth pain was only indigestion. When the infant Nazneen was delivered, she at first made no sound and appeared to be stillborn. Finally, she began to cry, but for days refused to eat. Rather than take her to a hospital, the mother decided to leave her to her fate.

So begins Monica Ali's enthralling debut novel, Brick Lane, which shows with great sensitivity how Nazneen lived long years of her life accepting fate, but finally after an arranged marriage to an older man, three children and a constricted life in London breaks free to make choices of her own.

Told from Nazneen's point of view, Brick Lane alternates her narrative with disturbing, sometimes comical letters from her beautiful sister Hasina, who eloped at 16, stayed in Bangladesh and suffered much while retaining her buoyant spirit.

Nazneen's is a compelling, often amusing voice. Consider the way she describes her husband's flat: "The sofa and chairs were the color of dried cow dung, which was a practical color." There's a temptation to compare Brick Lane to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, since both deal with immigrant communities in London, but this is a very different book. More than anything else, Brick Lane creates full-blown characters in intricate relationships, developed patiently over time. Women's issues and world politics also get an airing here, including responses to September 11. The novel, named for a street of high-end Bangladesh restaurants fancied by white Londoners, belongs superficially to the caught-between-two-worlds genre. Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the author who appeared on Granta's list of 20 young British writers to watch grew up in London and knows both cultures. Even better, she knows the human heart.

Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.

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