Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

Shankari Chandran

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens
Ultimo Press
3 November 2022

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

Shankari Chandran

Winner of the 2023 Miles Franklin Literary Award

Welcome to Cinnamon Gardens, a home for those who are lost and the stories they treasure.

Cinnamon Gardens Nursing Home is nestled in the quiet suburb of Westgrove, Sydney - populated with residents with colourful histories, each with their own secrets, triumphs and failings. This is their safe place, an oasis of familiar delights - a beautiful garden, a busy kitchen and a bountiful recreation schedule.

But this ordinary neighbourhood is not without its prejudices. The serenity of Cinnamon Gardens is threatened by malignant forces more interested in what makes this refuge different rather than embracing the calm companionship that makes this place home to so many. As those who challenge the residents’ existence make their stand against the nursing home with devastating consequences, our characters are forced to reckon with a country divided.

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is about family and memory, community and race, but is ultimately a love letter to storytelling and how our stories shape who we are.


This novel tells the story of the Ali family – Zakhir, his wife Maya and their twin children Anjali and Siddarth – Sri Lankan immigrants who settle in the fictitious outer Sydneysuburb of Westgrove in the early 1980s after fleeing their war-torn homeland. The family move into a dilapidated Federation-era nursing home for the elderly called Cinnamon Gardens at the invitation of its then-owner Cedric, a childhood friend of Zakhir’s back in Colombo.

As we follow the Ali family’s lives in present-day Sydney, these events are juxtaposed against a series of flashbacks from the previous four decades involving extended members of the family. We meet close family friend Nikki and her increasingly estranged husband Gareth, whose marriage is spiralling out of control, following the sudden deathof their young daughter Florence in a tragic accident involving Gareth’s elderly dementia-suffering father Ray, also a resident in the nursing home. Maya, the matriarch of the family, has a well-kept secret leading a double life as a hugely successful though anonymous white writer of Australian romantic fiction. Meanwhile Ruben, her helper in the nursing home, has a tragic past with links to his current life in Australia.

The narrative also weaves in events from the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka that began in earnest in 1983 between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan army and the liberation force known as the Tamil Tigers, who hoped to establish a separate state for the Tamil minority. The capture, torture and execution of Sri Lankans suspected of supporting the Tigers engulfs a number of the characters in the book with some tragic consequences.

Canberra-based author Shankari Chandran, who is herself Tamil, skilfully weaves these intersecting narratives to explore issues relating to the power of storytelling, contested histories and competing mythologies, forced assimilation and genocide in both Sri Lanka and Australia. Her characters grapple with current day issues of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the emergence of authoritarian populism in modern day Australia.

Tony Chapman is a bookseller at Readings Malvern.

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