In 2015 Sunjeev Sahota’s terrific book The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. That novel told the interweaving stories of a group of young Indians who came to the UK to seek a better life, only to find themselves ruthlessly exploited by employers and living in miserable and precarious conditions. Sunjeev Sahota has followed that success up with China Room, long listed for the Man Booker 21, and though this novel takes place on a narrower canvas—it interweaves just two stories—it shows again this writer’s skilful control of plot, his deft and succinct portrayal of character, which combine to create a gripping and moving tale.
The two stories here take place in two different time periods. The novel opens in 1929 with Mehar’s story. She’s 15 and has just been married to one of three brothers in rural Punjab. The other two brothers were married at the same time and all three brides are getting used to the ceaseless and exhausting tasks expected of them on the farm, orchestrated by their fearsome mother-in-law, Mai. They live in the china room, named for the set of six willow-pattern plates which stand high up on a shelf and formed part of Mai’s dowry years ago. The brides have no social interaction with their husbands, though they rush round to bring them tea and to serve meals when required. At night, one of them receives a tap on the shoulder from Mai, indicating that tonight it’s their turn to go to the rear chamber to receive their husband.
This is told from the point of view of 15 year old Mehar and the writer really gets beneath the skin of this young woman on the cusp of adulthood, brought up in a world where women are veiled, where their modesty is paramount and their choice of husband a matter for their elders. Yet there’s a certain excitement too for Mehar in this early stage of her marriage. She enjoys the company of her sisters-in-law, laughing and joshing about Mai’s strictures and demands. She’s also of course curious about the identity of her husband, which isn’t clear from his night time fumblings performed in silence, which only serve to pique her curiosity as well as her desire.
The second thread is a first person narrative, set in the present, and tells the story of a young 18 year old man from the UK with addiction problems. We’re told some of his back story and events that led him to drugs and alcohol. Brought up in a predominantly white community, he suffered racism and isolation as a child and teenager. He saw his father physically broken by working on a building site to supplement the poor income earned in the family shop during the recession. In an attempt to help him overcome his addiction before he goes to university, the family send him to his uncle in India. His uncle, Jai, is keen to help, but is unhappily married to Kuku, who deeply resents this nephew, even more so when he’s suffering from withdrawal symptoms while coming off drugs in her house.
The young narrator then visits the family farm-which is the farm that Mehar married into- and decides to stay there alone for the duration. Uncle Jai arranges for food to be brought out to him daily and he’s visited by Radhika, a young woman doctor and local teacher Tanbir, who befriend him and help him, until gradually recovery seems possible. There’s an almost palimpsest quality to this section, when the narrator is discovering and describing the layout of the farm, so meticulously described in the earlier sections when Mehar lived there, now with its bolts rusted, its smells of rotting fruit, stale smoke and dung, but the same iron bars on the room where he’s told his great-grandmother was locked up.
So this is a novel about love, marriage and family at two different points in time. It depicts the traditions and expectations of family life in rural Punjab, while really giving us a picture of what this must have felt like for women and men constrained by the norms at that time. And it’s not just about arranged marriages—it’s also about the hierarchy within the family and the merciless authoritarianism of parents. It’s not just Mehar and her sisters who suffer, but the brothers are also crushed. In the contemporary story, the young narrator has a different relationship with his parents, and indeed his uncle: there’s a kindness, a concern for his wellbeing, a light touch in dealing with his addiction. And there’s a wider range of relationships between men and women shown: the tenderness he glimpses between his parents when his mother tends to the bleeding sores on his father’s back, the constraints still present in the Punjab.
In terms of the endings, the young narrator has the better deal for sure. But Mehar’s presence is pivotal: it’s while living in the family farm, sharing the same space, breathing in the same smells and air as Mehar that the young narrator is able to grow and leave his addictions behind. It’s almost as if she’s saying well I can’t leave so I’m handing the baton on to you now to do it for me. It’s as if she’s giving him the strength to return home, to learn to live with his demons. The interweaving of these two stories gives us a fresh and novel approach not only to questions of family, but, for the young narrator, to questions of identity and heritage too. It’s a wonderful and thought-provoking read.