China Room by Sunjeev Sahota review – from northern England to Punjab

It’s a decade since Sunjeev Sahota published his debut novel, Ours Are the Streets, a bravura piece of imaginative intensity that took the form of a journal written by a would-be suicide bomber, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, for his wife, a white British woman, and their child. The reader never discovered whether the planned explosion in a Sheffield shopping centre took place; that was peripheral to Sahota’s primary aim of exploring the cultural alienation and isolation that, in this instance, led his protagonist to radicalisation and violence.

The occasional narrator of Sahota’s third novel, China Room, is also alienated and isolated, though his response is to turn his violent unhappiness inward; a 18, he is in the throes of heroin addiction. His account of a summer spent in rural Punjab is interspersed with the more substantial third-person story of a young woman in 1929, whom we later learn was his great-grandmother.

The narrator takes up an opportunity to combat his addiction by visiting an uncle in Punjab before he starts at a London university; he goes armed only with whisky and a selection of books “all by or about people who had already taken their leave”. His reading list – Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues, a biography of Leonora Carrington, poetry by Les Murray – is a summary of what troubles and interests him: addiction, familia, memory, surrealism, belonging and unbelonging. Later in the novel he realises that he hopes “reading about life might be a way to overcome it”.

But it is the story of Mehar, a 16-year-old bride who finds herself living in the “china room” – a cramped, hitherto seldom used building on a farm, its nickname derived from the willow-pattern plates that adorn it, which once formed part of a dowry – that looms largest in the novel. Mehar shares the room with Harbans and Gurleen, whom she has only recently met; the three of them have been married, in a single day, to three brothers. Ahora, they spend their days doing chores and waiting for the matriarch, Mai, to tap one of them on the shoulder, thereby summoning her to a bedroom to meet her husband and, it is hoped, become pregnant with a son. The narrative’s most important driver is that, while each of the brothers knows which wife is “theirs”, the veiled young women do not. Sex takes place in darkness, with only the briefest of verbal exchanges; the rest of the time, segregation between husbands and wives is near total.

Until it isn’t. There is a hint of the Shakespearean bed trick about the plot that unfolds, although it is only lightly sketched, as with much else in the novel. We know, por ejemplo, that Mai’s own marriage, and the subsequent death of her husband, influences her often callous single-mindedness, but details are scant. We know too that the pressure of political and economic events, many centred around restless, dangerous independence movements, contribute to the claustrophobia and tension on the farm; that questions of caste, religion and sexuality are always present in the background. But although these realities inflect the characters’ responses and behaviours, they are never allowed to stifle what is essentially a novel of interior life and sensation. There is a scrupulous subtlety about that way that Sahota refuses to let his historical characters act as though they are in a historical novel.

It is also a dramatically hushed novel, unlike Sahota’s second, the Booker-shortlisted exploration of illegal immigration The Year of the Runaways, which teemed with voices and activity. Aquí, events are glanced at, elaborated in fragments and elliptically, the reader left to draw a line leading from the earlier story to the life that the narrator has lived in the north of England, complete with its painful incidents of exclusion, racism both covert and explicit.

Both storylines converge in themes of escape and incarceration, whether literal or social and psychological. The narrator, living alone on the abandoned farm, having been shunned by his aunt and uncle, plays out an almost parodic tale of regeneration and reconnection that echoes Mehar’s less successful attempts at self-determination; their familial link hovers over the entire story, reminding us of the ghost-trauma carried from generation to generation.

Sahota has said that China Room has its seed in his own family history, and a photograph at the end of the book, of an elderly woman cradling a baby, the surroundings suggestive of a few decades ago rather than a century, confirms an element of documentary about the novel. But rather than feeling confined by whatever real-life elements informed its creation, it exists in a far more indeterminate, diffuse dimension, at times taking on an almost fairytale quality. In his three novels, Sahota has demonstrated an ambitious need to adapt the specific and concrete to something less easy to pin down, complete with all the gaps and ruptures that life provides and art makes, even for a moment, tangible.

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