Alentejo Blue is the story of a village community in Portugal, told through the lives of men and women whose families have lived there for generations and some who are passing through. For Teresa, a beautiful girl not yet twenty, Mamarrosa is a place from which to escape. For the dysfunctional Potts family, it is a way of running from trouble (though not eluding it). Vasco, a café owner who has never recovered from the death of his American wife, clings to a notion that his years away from the village, in the States, make him superior. One English tourist fantasizes about making a new life in Mamarrosa; for her compatriots, a young engaged couple, Mamarrosa is where their dreams fall apart.
At the opening of Alentejo Blue, an old man reflects on his long and troubled life in this seemingly tranquil place, and anticipates the homecoming of Marco Afonso Rodrigues, the prodigal son of the village and a symbol of the now fast-changing world. When Marco does finally return, villagers, tourists, and expatriates are brought together, and their jealousies and disappointments inevitably collide.
Ali's 2003 debut, Brick Lane, was a brilliant family saga told largely from within a Bangladeshi woman's apartment on London's ramshackle East End. Ali, who was born in Dhaka and grew up in London, sets her sophomore effort in a similarly struggling community, the rural Alentejo region of Portugal, where cork prices are falling, the region is still healing after the brutal Salazar regime and the locals don't quite care to cater to tourists. But where Brick Lane was quietly symphonic, this blues-like novel is more of a dirge: Jo o, in old age, comes upon his old friend (and sometime lover), Rui, hanging from a tree, his Communist dreams dashed; the English Potts family scrapes by as indolents-in-exile; the writer Stanton, also British, works away on a second-rate literary biography; tavern-keeper Vasco sadly and silently reminisces about his marriage to an American, Lili; and young Teresa is preparing to leave the village for an uncertain future "outside." The simultaneous sense of stasis and great change is Ali's forte, and her characters' perceptions are sharp. But when anyone other than the Brits speak, it's as if Ali is trying to ventriloquize an incompletely acquired dialect. The characters' lives generate little tension, much like the pinball machine in Vasco's cafe that Stanton plays badly.