Review: Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam

I have trouble making friends. I don’t do well with the superficial early stages of friendship, and this inhibition carries over into my reading habits; I resist getting to know a new cast of characters. But Anwar Saleem, the first character introduced by Tanwi Nandini Islam in her novel Bright Lines immediately felt like an old friend. The pot-head, loving dad, and coveter of his neighbor’s wife made me feel welcome in his home at 111 Cambridge Place in Brooklyn.
The heart of Bright Lines is Anwar’s adopted daughter Ella. I felt her presence on every page as if the story was seen through her eyes. And such eyes to see with. Ella’s eyes see more than most, including phenomena only she can see.

“After a while, Ella relaxed. The film’s music wafted over her. She took off her glasses to rest her eyes. Her vision was in the negative nines, and most things were fuzzy outlines until she put her glasses on. Around the time of her parents’ death, something else had started happening, usually set off by a headache or stress. From twilight until she slept, she would see bright lines and shapes, plants, or people. And now, the time-lapse frames of the documentary became a riotous, psychedelic hallucination of blossoms, fauna, the curling, spreading, mixing within a microcosm.

Ella’s visions ranged from meditative to wacky. A waning moon over a placid lake, a bevy of Egyptian blue monarchs, a television set bouncing up and down around the room. For much of her childhood, she assumed her eyes were making up things for her to see; she’d wondered if she were going insane. And she worried that telling Answar and Hashi might then involve seeing a shrink. Or being sent back to Bangladesh.”

The Brooklyn of Bright Lines is a land of mystery and seduction, as seen here through the eyes of Ella’s sister:

“Charu walked over to a large rock and sat down. She watched the water crash below her feet. The bridge’s lights made the ripples appear as streaks of lightning. Each ephemeral pattern in the tide gave way to a new one and then another new one; she wondered if this was how Ella saw the world. Being over here made Charu realize how landlocked her own neighborhood was. Something about being next to the water, even if it was the dirtiest water in the U.S., made shit seem – bigger.”

Whether the setting is Brooklyn or Bangladesh – whether the intoxication is caused by flowers, hashish, or sex – the imagery is wonderfully organic. Especially the sex. I’ve never read a story before where each instance of sex plays a role in furthering the plot or developing a character. Just like real life, the sex is essential.

Bangladesh is revealed with the same loving eye to detail as Brooklyn:

“As they rode toward Banani, the crowded alleyways of Old Dhaka opened up into wider roads, just as crowded with people. The car zipped past roadside markets displaying enormous bunches of black grapes freshly plucked from the vine. A cycle wagon carrying a hundred watermelons milled past. Ella wondered how the scrawny driver packed enough energy in his calves to move such a load. Men were everywhere. There was hardly a woman on the street. Ella had never been in a place full of brown-skinned people that she felt – kinship with. Some men wore pants; other, lungis paired with funky floral shirts. Everyone was hustling something, selling Nokias or produce, laying bricks or pitching bamboo ladders, or driving baby taxis and rickshaws, trying to evade aggressive drivers.”

Bright Lines is not a perfect book – such a thing might not exist – but even its imperfections are charming. And beauty is everywhere:

“Anwar stared up at the paper lanterns overhead, wondering how such a simple thing, paper bent into a sphere, could be so beautiful.”

I’m reluctant to crack the cover of a new book and start familiarizing myself with a new cast of characters until these ones stop reverberating in my head. That might take a while.

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