“He stands in the empty courtyard: above him the stars are bright and stitched into the day’s dark dress. They are so close he could reach up to twist away a sequin and when he does run his palm across the night, the stars travel along his arm. He wonders what lies beyond them. God, he supposes, with his set of brass scales.”
According to The Spectator:
“Sunjeev Sahota’s novels present an unvarnished image of British Asian lives. Ours Are the Streets chronicles a suicide bomber’s radicalisation, and its Booker-shortlisted successor, The Year of the Runaways, follows illegal immigrants in Sheffield — where Sahota now lives, having been raised in Derby by Punjabi-born parents. China Room, his most autobiographical work to date, mines his adolescence in deprived 1990s Chesterfield and imagines that of his great-grandmother in rural Punjab.”
China Room came to my notice when it was chosen as the Hay Festival Book of the Month. It has since been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 but did not make the shortlist (shown below).
One of the Booker judges has been quoted as saying:
“While judging the Booker Prize we look at not just what the writers are saying but how they are saying it, and therefore nationalities do not really matter” … (Chigozie Obioma)
Oh but nationalities do matter! Surely they will only stop mattering when people learn to move past them , and we seem as far away from that nirvana as ever. That is why there is a need for Sahota to write this book. Booker judge Obioma meant to refer to the nationality of the writer being irrelevant, of course. But that isn’t true either in the 21st century now that we have invented cultural appropriation.
Nationality matters in order to understand the traumatising effects of racism. To need to write about it.
So, to the plot.
The story is set two time shifts, 1929 and the 1990s. In 1929, Mehar, a 15 year old girl is married to one of three brothers. She is taken to live on an isolated farm in Punjab under the dominance of a scheming, cruel matriarch called Mai, mother of the three men. The China Room of the title is merely a narrow brick room with a shelf holding a few china plates, where the three wives have to live and work.
“the brothers do not address her in one another’s presence, indeed they barely speak to her at all and she, it goes without saying, is expected to remain dutiful, veiled and silent…”
When I started this book I thought it would be a tale of an arranged marriage gone wrong, with an added ‘down with the patriarchy’ thread. But the tale Sahota weaves is much more layered and complex than that. With the odious Mai in charge, the patriarchy is the least of the girl’s problems.
Although Mehar’s arranged marriage does indeed fail, it does so in surprising ways.
The modern aspect of the story is narrated by Mehar’s great grandson, a character based possibly on a semi-autobiographical telling of the writer’s own adolescent battles against racism while growing up in pre-millennium Britain. The young man in this 1990s section of the story journeys to visit family and find his roots, coming eventually to the now deserted old farm in order to battle his own demons.
The story asks, can we make sense of our own lives by understanding what happened in the past? So many novels rely on this premise. Not just novels. TV plots. Films. Even therapists believe coming to terms with the past can help us fix the present. But how valid is this premise?
China Room is a family saga which addresses itself to transgenerational trauma. We all have a past. Ancestors who messed things up, or didn’t, who were brutal, or weren’t. Who did their best (or didn’t) with the time they were given. Who died, eventually. Interestingly, on the Storygraph website, only 1% of readers found this book ‘inspiring’ as opposed to 78% who found it ‘emotional’.
Of her marriage Mehar says: “It’s decided. You can’t change the past.”
China Room asks not whether you can change the past, but whether past should determine the future. We can’t change what has happened but we can change our response to it. If we recognise that trauma does not stop with the death of the traumatised person but carries on through the generations, then what more urgent question can there currently be for mankind in a world drowned in trauma?
The 2021 Booker shortlist nominees in full:
- Anuk Arudpragasam – A Passage North. In his second novel, the Sri Lankan author explores the lasting effects of the trauma and violence of his country’s civil war, and a past love affair. “We felt that he was taking on with great seriousness this question of, how can you grasp the present, while also trying to make sense of the past?” said judge Horatia Harrod.
- Damon Galgut – The Promise. The South African writer’s ninth novel follows a white family over the decades from the Apartheid era. “The ultimate question that the novel asks is, is justice – true justice – possible in this world?” Obioma said. “If it is, then what might that look like?”
- Patricia Lockwood – No One Is Talking About This. This is the first novel by the American poet and memoirist. It follows a woman catapulted to social media fame, told using what Booker judge Rowan Williams described as the “unpromising medium of online prattle”. When reality impinges on this online existence, it ends up being a story “with intense, emotional energy and truthfulness”, he said.
- Nadifa Mohamed – The Fortune Men. Mohamed was born in Somaliland and raised in Britain, and her book is set in the docks of post-war Cardiff Bay. It fictionalises the story of Mahmood Mattan, a real Somali sailor who was wrongly accused of murder. “This is a story about the past that has great significance for the present,” said judging chair Maya Jasanoff.
- Richard Powers – Bewilderment. The US author won the Pulitzer for his last novel The Overstory. Here, a widowed astrobiologist turns to experimental treatments to help his nine-year-old son with additional needs – and take him to other planets. It is “a clarion call for us all to wake up and realise what our minds might be truly capable of if we were less obedient to the status quo,” judge Natascha McElhone said.
- Maggie Shipstead – Great Circle. Another American author, Shipstead’s third novel intertwines the stories of a daring post-war female pilot and a 21st century Hollywood actress who is trying to rescue her reputation by making a film about her. It “speaks to ever-present questions about freedom and constraints, particularly in women’s lives”, Jasanoff said.
Up next week: My review of The Lost Pianos of Siberia, Sophy Roberts