September 08, 2003 12:00 PM

By Monica Ali

In Bangladesh, Nazneen arrives in this world stillborn, only to snap to life moments later. Her dramatic birth convinces her mother that Nazneen should leave life to chance because “fighting against one’s Fate weakens the blood.” So Nazneen floats along accepting what life delivers, including a loveless arranged marriage and immigration to London, where she waits out the years in a tiny flat.

This well-crafted first novel has already earned Ali a spot on a prestigious literary journal’s list of the best young British novelists and comparisons to White Teeth author Zadie Smith. Nazneen’s passivity, though, doesn’t lead to much drama; Ali could have livened things up with more narrative invention or beautiful writing. When Nazneen does eventually fight for her own interests, the resulting scenes are powerful. And Ali’s rendering of life among Muslim immigrants is sensitive and sophisticated: Remembering her youth, Nazneen remarks, “You can whisper to a mango tree…. But what can you tell to a pile of bricks?” (Scribner, $25)

BOTTOM LINE: Promising debut

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