Shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2022
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021
Longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022
Longlist for the Ondaatje Prize 2022
A Daily Telegraph , Guardian and The Times Book of the Year
[ About the Book ]
Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. She and her sisters-in-law, married to three brothers in a single ceremony, spend their days at work in the family’s ‘china room’, sequestered from contact with the men. When Mehar develops a theory as to which of them is hers, a passion is ignited that will put more than one life at risk.
Spiralling around Mehar’s story is that of a young man who in 1999 travels from England to the now-deserted farm, its ‘china room’ locked and barred. In enforced flight from the traumas of his adolescence – his experiences of addiction, racism, and estrangement from the culture of his birth – he spends a summer in contemplation and recovery, finally gathering the strength to return home.
[ My Review ]
China Room by Sunjeev Sahota was published May 6th 2021 with Harvill Secker and is a novel described as one ‘of forbidden love that echoes across the generations’. Last month I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to read and review China Room, along with all the books shortlisted for the recent Rathbones Folio Prize 2022 (the winner was The Magician by Colm Tóibín), so I do hope you enjoy my thoughts.
China Room explores the lives of two young people, Mehar and her unnamed great-grandson, set over seventy years apart. In 1929, against the backdrop of partition in India, Mehar is married off to one of three brothers but her husband’s identity is unknown to her. On that day two other young girls, Gurleen and Harbans, become her sisters-in-law, making it three brides for three brothers. Always wearing veiled head coverings, the three young women live a very claustrophobic existence in a part of the house called the china room, under the very watchful eye of their tyrannical mother-in-law, Mai.
‘They live in the china room, named for the old willow-pattern plates that lean high on a stone shelf, a set of six that arrived with Mai years ago as part of her wedding dowry. Far beneath the shelf, at waist level, runs a concrete slab that the women use for preparing food, and under this is a modest mud-oven. The end of the room widens enough for a pair of charpoys to be laid perpendicular to each other and across these two string beds all three women are made to sleep.’
Mehar, Gurleen and Harbans have little choice in how they spend their days and, at certain times, are expected to perform their marital duty. During these night-time conjugal visits, they never see the face of their respective husbands and are left with their imaginations and chatter trying to pinpoint who is married to which brother. Their insular existence frustrates Mehar, a spirited young woman who is determined to live a different life than the one expected of her but Mehar is bound by laws and traditions that will never accept her independent streak.
Mehar’s story crosses over into that of her great-grandson, a young man about to embark on his own path in life. It’s 1999 and, on the cusp of the new millennium, he is quite disconnected from his life. Growing up in England, he experienced constant racism directed toward him and his family and it damaged him emotionally in so many ways. Now a heroin addict, he is packed off to his uncle in India to rehabilitate. There his struggle continues and his presence upsets his uncle’s wife so he is encouraged to move into the old isolated and abandoned family farm in the countryside, where his great-grandmother, Mehar, used to live.
‘I was in a courtyard of hard, compacted earth, the colour of peanuts, and in front of me the homestead curved round like a horseshoe , with its flat roof and pillars of peeling paint. There looked to be some rooms at the back of the porch. I could make out darkened door-shapes, and to the sides as well, the left one seemingly a barn leading on to whatever was at the rear of the house. The room to my right, sitting apart from the main building, had a window, iron-barred’
His time on the farm is an opportunity to reflect on his own life and to reconnect with the past. Through random conversations with some of the locals he begins to gather snippets of information about his great-grandmother while also starting his own journey back into the world. He takes up residence in the china room as a place to shelter from the persistent mosquitoes but, as he rests there at night, the significance of the room takes shape in his mind
‘As the light streamed past the five iron bars and made a cage on the wall behind me, I wondered if Laxman had looked at me so hard because he saw a family resemblance. I’d always been told I take after my mother’s side, it was true, and now I thought of my great-grandmother lying here, cooking here, in this small room with its forbidding bars.’
China Room is inspired by a family legend from Sunjeev Sahota’s own personal history. At the back of the book there is a photograph of what I can assume is Sunjeev Sahota as a baby with his own great-grandmother, adding a very authentic and personal layer to this very affecting tale.
China Room is set in two different eras with two different generations of the same family, incorporating themes of racism, intolerance, family, betrayal, passion, identity, addiction and so much more. An extremely atmospheric and stirring tale, China Room is an eloquently written novel, an immersive and, at times, heart-breaking experience, a story that challenges, angers and saddens yet, is also very compelling and powerful.
Sunjeev Sahota is the author of Ours Are the Streets and The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and won the Encore Prize, the European Union Prize for Literature, and the South Bank Sky Arts Award. He was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013. He lives in Sheffield.