Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali Doubleday, $225 Monica Ali made her name with Brick Lane, her debut novel chronicling the fortunes of a girl transplanted from a village in Bangladesh to a new life in a council flat in London by way of an arranged marriage. Ali, though, was never at ease with the prospect of being pigeonholed as an ethnic writer, despite the fact that her novel was widely acclaimed for its depiction of London's South Asian diaspora, which had long been the object of cultural fascination in a country desperately insecure about its multiculturalism. So, after the success of her first novel, Ali bought a house in the undulating plains of the Alentejo region of Portugal and turned her pen to the region's inhabitants, setting her second novel in Mamarrosa, a nondescript, allegorical village in the south of Portugal - a cultural world away from London's council flats. Mamarrosa is populated with a strange assemblage of characters: a mixture of expatriates, tourists and estrangeiros, whose stories form the basis of the book. In nine chapters we're introduced to eight characters, with a rather contrived final scene in which they all converge for a party. There's Jo?o, the world-weary peasant who chances on the corpse of his old friend Rui hanging from a tree; Stanton, an alcoholic middle-aged writer working on his novel about Blake; Huw and Sophie, young British tourists who have rented a house; and Marco, a mysterious resident who left Mamarrosa long ago but whose expected return captivates the villagers. And that's just a sample. The full cast is far too numerous to list here, which is a problem, because at some 300 pages Alentejo Blue isn't a long book, yet it's spread thin across a network of disparate characters. Ali's latest offering occupies a dangerous place in the publishing world. None of its chapters is separate or complete enough to be considered a short story, yet in its totality the book isn't cohesive enough to add up to a novel. These disjointed character sketches are bursting with promise and any one of them could become the subject of a complete novel, but as a loosely connected collection of vignettes they make for frustrating reading. Ali's narrative is constantly shifting to yet another setting, never giving the reader a chance to feel emotional attachment to the characters and never giving Ali a chance to craft much of a plot. Little happens in Mamarrosa, because Ali seems intent on not allowing anything of interest to transpire. The book is rich with possibility for the kinds of dramatic plot turns that could sustain an interesting novel - infidelity, a murder charge, accusations of an illegal abortion - but Ali seems content to simply display these potential avenues to her reader without exploring them. Instead, the focus is on the philosophical discourses explored by Ali's characters. Mamarrosa's bakery, bar, pharmacy and its non-functional internet cafe are little more than convenient backdrops against which her characters can make grand philosophical pronouncements on the banality of the everyday, such as Vasco, the barman who delivers a searching monologue on whether to eat a stale piece of pastry. In many respects, the novel is a master-piece of self-abnegation. Reading Alentejo Blue it's clear that Ali has no interest in suspending readers' disbelief, instead keeping them at an emotional distance from the action. She risks alienating her readers by, quite deliberately, choosing not to craft a compelling story in the same vein as her debut, lest the catharsis of emotional involvement distract from the novel's philosophical discourses. The problem with Alentejo Blue is ironically summed up best by Stanton, one of Mamarrosa's frustrated writers, who spends the book waiting for something to happen - only to be struck by the realisation that 'nothing happened at all'.