The novel opens in 1967 in East Pakistan (territory which will later become the country of Bangladesh). Rupban unexpectedly goes into premature labor and gives birth to a daughter, Nazneen. Nazneen is frail and weak, and Rupban is given the choice to either send her infant daughter to a hospital, or wait and see. Rupban, supported by her husband Hamid and her sister-in-law Mumtaz, decides not to seek medical attention and see what fate holds for her daughter. To everyone's surprise, Nazneen survives. Rupban and Hamid eventually have a second daughter, Hasina, who is notable for her beauty. When Hasina is 16 years old, she runs away to marry a man of her choosing. This is an unconventional act at a time when most girls have arranged marriages. Nazneen agrees to marry the man her father chooses for her, even though she is secretly disappointed that he is unattractive and much older than her.
The story resumes in London, England in the year 1985. Now aged 18, Nazneen has been married for six months. Her husband, Chanu, lives in England, so she has joined him there, and they live in an apartment in a working-class neighborhood in East London along with many other immigrants from the Bengali community. Nazneen feels isolated and confused in her new home, though she is grateful that Chanu treats her with kindness. Nazneen has also received a letter from Hasina, in which her sister describes her new life with her husband Malek. Hasina loves Malek deeply, but his parents oppose their marriage, and she is also cautious to be appropriately subordinate towards her husband. Nazneen reflects on the difference between the passion Hasina describes, and the detached way in which Chanu treats her.
On this particular day, Nazneen is working hard to prepare a perfect meal because Chanu's friend, Dr. Azad, will be joining them. Chanu believes Dr. Azad can help him get a promotion. During her preparations, Nazneen is interrupted by a visit from Mrs. Islam and Razia, two local Bengali women who also live in the Tower Hamlet council estate (a type of property development). They share some gossip, revealing that Nazneen has entered into a close-knit community where word travels quickly.
That evening during dinner, Chanu requests Azad's help with securing a promotion, but Dr. Azad is noncommittal. Chanu expresses his disappointment and frustration at the way his career has not advanced as he expected. He seems to imagine that he and the doctor have a closer friendship than they actually do. After Dr. Azad leaves, Nazneen is fascinated by watching ice skating on the television, but Chanu is preoccupied with his theory that racial prejudice is holding him back. He values education and cannot understand why his academic qualifications have not been valued. Chanu is often long-winded and pretentious when he talks about ideas, which Nazneen finds frustrating. As time passes, she has to work to repress feelings of anger, frustration, and despair. Chanu does not encourage her to go out, to meet people, or to learn English.
Nazneen recalls the experience of losing her mother, which happened when she was 14 and Hasina was 12. Mumtaz found Rupban where she had collapsed and fallen onto a sharpened spear. Nazneen has not been getting replies to her most recent letters to Hasina, which makes her worried. To distract herself, she spends more time with Razia, who is older than Nazneen and has two children. Eventually, Nazneen finds out that she is pregnant.
A short time later, she receives a letter from Hasina informing her that Hasina has fled her abusive husband. She is going to the central city of Dhaka to try and make a life for herself. This news is devastating to Nazneen who is afraid of what might happen to her sister. Dazed with worry, she leaves the flat and spends the day aimlessly walking around London. Although she finds the experience overwhelming, Nazneen also feels empowered by the realization that she can navigate the city on her own.
When Nazneen asks Chanu to try and help her sister, he claims there is nothing he can do, and that it will be best to see what happens. This lack of action makes Nazneen angry, and she begins to act out in small ways as her pregnancy progresses. Mrs. Islam, an older and well-connected woman in the community, plays an active role in helping Nazneen. Nazneen eventually learns that Hasina has rented rooms from a man named Mr. Chowdhury, who is also going to help her find work. Nonetheless, she explains to Razia why Chanu's inaction makes her angry. Razia is sympathetic to Nazneen's struggles, and mentions that she is going to take college classes and learn English. Nazneen raises this idea with Chanu, but he dismisses it since she will need to focus her attention on the baby.
The circumstances around Nazneen's birth and infancy set the tone for the remainder of her life, creating an almost fairytale or mystical quality to her origin story. As Alistair Cormack observes, "As in the case of a nation, Nazneen's origin is situated in a distant past" (701). From a psychoanalytical point of view, it also becomes clear why Nazneen will spend so much of her life struggling to reconcile with a sense of her own agency.
As a young mother, it seems that Rupban would do everything possible to save her daughter. Instead, she passively accepts that everything is predetermined, and there is no point trying to impose one's own will or desire. Rupban's perspective aligns with her own experiences: as a woman living in a rural area and a patriarchal society, she likely has no model of a time when she has seen a woman stand up for herself. Her mother's behavior becomes the model of what Nazneen thinks is expected of her, and what will keep her safe and happy. She should strive to have no desires of her own, and be totally accepting of whatever fate hands to her.
However, even growing up in the same family structure, Hasina takes a radically different approach to life. Even as a young girl, she knows what she wants, and she is willing to risk everything in order to pursue. Her choice to marry for love permanently severs Hasina's relationship with her father, and thrusts her into a precarious position. Nonetheless, she chooses to be optimistic and believe in the hope of a happy life. Nazneen is awestruck by her sister's boldness, but incapable of asserting herself in the same way. In fact, Hasina's rejection of expected behavior likely creates more pressure for Nazneen to fulfill the role of a dutiful daughter. Nonetheless, even while Nazneen maintains an outward show of obedience, readers are given hints that she may share some of Hasina's traits. Nazneen is secretly disappointed that Chanu is older, and doesn't seem to be very attracted to her. She is also fascinated by Hasina's description of the love and desire she feels for her husband. These clues hint that Nazneen's character is more complex than it may appear, and foreshadow later events.
Nazneen's marriage radically changes her life by catapulting her into a new country. She knows no one in England, and therefore is very dependent on Chanu. Even while Chanu prides himself on being a modern and educated man, he still subscribes to some very traditional and conservative ideas. He expects that Nazneen will be satisfied by confining herself to a domestic life, and he does not see any need for her to broaden her horizons. Nazneen's world is limited to a small and tight-knit community that replicates many customs from village life, including gossip and speculation. However, this is also a community where women band together and support each other. With her mother dead and Hasina potentially lost forever, a network of other women is particularly vital to supporting Nazneen's transition into her roles of wife and mother.
Chanu is a complex and interesting character: like Nazneen, there is more to him than meets the eye. In many stories, the older husband of an arranged marriage would be represented as a villainous or oppressive figure. As John Mullan observes, Chanu "begins as someone the reader is invited to resent" (85). Chanu is clearly well-meaning, and endearingly pretentious. In his own way, he has encountered a lot of of suffering and disappointment. He is very ambitious and hopeful, but he cannot understand why power dynamics conspire against him. Chanu's naive hope that Dr. Azad will help him show that he does not fully understand how British society works, or how he can best advance his ambitions. Even though he seems to be so much better integrated than Nazneen, in many ways, Chanu is equally confused and restricted.