With its supple prose and acute insights into a wildly mixed bag of characters, Alentejo Blue a collection of vignettes set in rural Portugal establishes definitively that Monica Ali is a major literary talent. In Brick Lane, Ali's poised 2003 debut, she offered a nuanced portrait of a shy Bangladeshi immigrant in London and her tedious but tender marriage. Ali sets her second novel in what one character calls the ''poorest region in the poorest country in the European Union,'' where she explores the inner lives of eight people expats, tourists, and natives whose paths fleetingly cross.
Novelists don't generally write well about peasants, and Ali is no exception. She begins the book with her blurriest characterization: João, an 84-year-old farmer who discovers his friend Rui hanging from a tree. As João cuts him down and cradles him, he reminisces about their long acquaintance, and their brief, fraught love affair.
For João, the best of his life is in the past. By contrast, Teresa, the pretty shopgirl who delivers his groceries, lives in the future, when she will move to London as an au pair. Teresa walks around her frumpy village, aglow with excitement that is momentarily dimmed whenever she passes one of the grubby British expats. ''How annoying it was,'' she thinks, seeing Stanton, a seedy English writer. ''What does he want here anyway?''
Stanton, a tortured misanthrope straight out of a Martin Amis novel, would say he wants a quiet rustic setting where he can focus on his book about William Blake, just as Teresa wants glamour. But instead of writing, Stanton drinks, begins a tawdry affair with a married British woman, then moves on to her promiscuous daughter.
The finest chapter an astute stand-alone portrait of marital malaise follows Eileen, a middle-aged tourist, through a torpid afternoon of hot flashes and sorrowful reflections on her husband: ''When did he start doing that? Using my name only when he wants to make me feel stupid.'' In Portugal, Eileen sees new possibilities for her life. ''I could be one of those Englishwomen with fat ankles and capillaried cheeks and hair coming down from under a tattered hat who set up in places like this, to keep bees or grow runner beans, or save donkeys,'' she thinks. ''Everyone would know me and say in a fond sort of way, 'Ah, there she goes, the crazy Englishwoman.'''
Ali understands her characters what they want, how they deceive themselves, where they fit into this forlorn corner of the world with perfect clarity. Even in the last chapter, when all her lost souls come together at a fiesta, this scrapbook of a novel never gathers much narrative force. But it is made of intriguingly beautiful bits and pieces.