The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger, Penguin, RRP£12.99, 337 pages
Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism 34 years ago, western writers have become much more wary of treating Asian subjects. It would not have occurred to Kipling, or to the EM Forster of A Passage to India, that there was anything innately improper in writing about alien cultures. But many contemporary western writers are nervous about it, feeling that there are too many ways in which the culture can be mistaken and traduced; knowing, too, that Asia has produced many great novelists of its own.
Nell Freudenberger’s second novel, The Newlyweds, represents a restless counter-movement to these pieties. It is the work of a writer with strong interests in the non-western world. Her debut novel, The Dissident (2007), was about a Chinese visiting artist in a Californian school.
Amina is 24 and travels from Bangladesh to upstate New York to marry George, who is 10 years older. While Amina is not exactly a mail-order bride, the relationship has been forged remotely – on an internet dating site called AsianEuro.com. There have been no experienced matchmakers standing by – only well-meaning, encouraging friends. Amina and George’s relationship develops into marriage without either of them understanding that the well-wishers are poisoning their shared life; the degree to which those friends are still involved only becomes apparent as the novel progresses.
The chief success of the novel is in the portrayal of one of these friends – George’s unstable and unreliable confidante Kim. She is a convincing comic creation, a woman who, fresh from living in India, where she had a doomed love affair with a rich local, feels herself qualified to take a special interest in Amina. “‘I could take you to Namaste,’ Kim said ... ‘That’s the Indian market in Henrietta. You could teach me some Bengali cooking.’”
Kim is a meddling, rich and foolish western person who thinks that what her friend needs is a Bengali wife. The plot consequences are beautifully done. Yet we also need a complete analysis of the situation from Amina’s Bengali perspective. Freudenberger tries hard to supply this but we see, mainly, those aspects of a foreign culture that reflect western values through either likeness or striking contrast: Amina, in an embarrassing situation, is implausibly made to “adjust her expression. She was grateful suddenly for her skin, which didn’t flush in an obvious way.”
Situations that reflect western preoccupations include a Bengali character being attacked with acid and, who then, we are told, “knew what it must have been like for the Hindu widows who were thrown into the flames of their husband’s pyres”. It is difficult to imagine that comparison coming to the mind of a 21st-century Bengali.
Overall, the novel proceeds too much according to the interests and preoccupations of Americans, even in scenes in Bangladesh between Bengali characters. Too much relies on the questions of who loves whom, and who finds sexual fulfilment most easily – “[Amina] was surprised by how fast and hard he came.” These are very American questions. Religion enters the story but it is detached from political concerns, about which every Bengali I have ever met can talk for hours.
Nor is the social standing of Amina’s family at all clear – she sometimes seems to be from very simple origins, sometimes from quite socially astute circles. When public issues enter, they are worthy and uninvolved: “It was [a book] he’d encouraged Amina to read – about how the 1952 student protests against the government’s imposition of Urdu on the Bangla-speaking eastern wing of the country had given birth to the struggle for independence.”
The Newlyweds is not exactly a bad novel, but it is limited in its analysis. Nearly a century after Forster in A Passage to India regretted that no friendship could exist between east and west – “No, not yet” – it seems as large a challenge as ever for a writer to conceive of a Bengali woman’s thoughts when they are not concerned with western preoccupations.
The limitations of The Newlyweds suggest that, when Asian and western experiences rub up against each other, this may no longer produce anything more than a set of banal observations. In the west, the time for a new kind of literature of meeting may well be approaching: one that is based on familiarity rather than strangeness.
Philip Hensher’s most recent novel is ‘Scenes from Early Life’ (Fourth Estate).