I included Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways in my Five Books I’ve Read post about immigrants, having enjoyed it very much. About a group of economic migrants, it was notable for its empathetic portrayal of their precarious lives. His new novel, China Room, interweaves two stories, both set in the Punjab: the first in the 1920s when a young woman is married to one of a formidable matriarch’s three sons; the other in the 1990s when her British great-grandson comes to India, determined to free himself from drug addiction.
Not everyone is as forgiving as her father, willing to overlook a wife who can’t birth males, refusing to switch her for another who can
Mehar is five years old when she’s introduced to a couple sizing her up as a potential bride. Puzzled by their behaviour, she forgets them until her future mother-in-law turns up again, recently widowed. Aged fifteen, she must leave behind her loving parents and the cousin she’s come to think of as her brother. Once at the farm, she’s installed with two other young women in the ‘china room’ where all three sleep and perform their ceaseless domestic chores, only leaving their quarters when a tap on the shoulder means it’s time for sex with their husbands. Mehar is curious as to which one of the three sons she’s married, something her mother-in-law keeps tight to her chest, peering through the veil that obscures her vision until she convinces herself she knows who it is. What follows is a story of lust which turns to love, played out against a backdrop of violence as the Free India movement flexes its muscles. Woven through Mehar’s story is her great-grandson’s as he looks back two decades on the summer he spent in India at his family’s derelict farm when he was eighteen years old, desperate to wean himself off the drug he’d used to ease the pain of racism.
Did he wonder, like I did, like I still do whenever I see my daughter be so casually, so unthinkingly, sidelined in the playground, did he too wonder if these people would ever agree to share ownership of this land?
Sahota tells his story in bright, clean understated prose from which his vibrant descriptions of the Indian landscape sing out. Mehar is an engaging character, her story gripping. Both she and the two women she comes to feel are her sisters know that their security is only ensured by producing a son in this society in which women count for little other than the mothers of heirs. Her great-grandson’s narrative is woven neatly through hers, the hurt and pain of racism a low hum throughout his childhood, both in his own experience and the humiliations and violence he’s seen visited on his father. It’s a book inspired partly by Sahota’s own family history, apparently, making it particularly poignant. An engrossing, affecting novel, in the right hands it would make an excellent movie.
Harvill Secker: London 9781911215851 256 pages Hardback