China Room by Sunjeev Sahota

My son-in-law’s cousin was married a few months ago to a Punjabi man she’d never met. The marriage, by her own report, is going well. For some of us in the West, the idea of an arranged marriage seems completely alien. For Booker Prize- shortlisted novelist Sunjeev Sahota, who explores these relationships in his new novel, China Room, the arranged marriage can have tragic consequences.

Mehar grows up in a loving family, albeit one in which she is trained to run a household, look after and be obedient to her husband, and be respectful to her mother-in-law. Her idyllic childhood is disrupted one day when her family is visited by some awful strangers. These are the parents of her husband-to-be, come to inspect her, her cousin tells her. In 10 years they will come for you, he says, and they do. Mehar is married to one of three brothers and comes to live in their home. She doesn’t see her husband; she doesn’t know his name. Occasionally she is told to wait in a darkened room, the China Room, and is visited by a man who is kindly but instructs her on what to do; she doesn’t see his face. But there is another man who visits who is tender and excites her. Which is her husband?

Many years later Mehar’s great- grandson arrives from England; he has a problem with drugs and alcohol and has been sent by his father to stay with his uncle to dry out and get clean. As his withdrawal symptoms become evident, his uncle decides to send him to the now abandoned family farm outside the town. His uncle’s wife despises her husband; she was in love with another man when her marriage to the uncle was arranged. At the farm, the man begins to grapple with his problems of identity and starts trying to understand the causes of his behaviour. The two stories weave in and out of each other in this wonderful and moving novel.

Mark Rubbo is the managing director of Readings.

Cover image for China Room

China Room

Sunjeev Sahota

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