Sunjeev Sahota’s brilliant second novel, the 2015 Booker Prize short-listed The Year of the Runaways, was a sweeping and absorbing look at hardscrabble Indian immigrant life in working-class England. His third book, China Room, is a shorter, more intimate novel that still tells a compelling and devastating tale. It’s also partially based on a true story.
The novel alternates between two storylines in the 1920s and 1990s. The earlier timeline, which is based in part on Sahota’s great-grandmother’s experiences, is set in India’s heavily agricultural Punjab region. Notoriously patriarchal, rural India has been slow to offer women certain rights and opportunities, especially a century ago. Three brothers are married to young girls, including 15-year-old Mehar, in a triple ceremony. The girls are ruled with an iron fist by their mother-in-law, Mai, who barks orders like a military general and demeans them every chance she gets. Mai permits nightly visits between her sons and their new wives, but only in pitch darkness. In the confusion, an illicit affair begins.
The second story, set during the summer of 1999, centers on Mehar’s great-grandson. Narrating from 2019, the man describes traveling to India, seeking refuge from the heroin that has wrecked his health and the racism that has broken apart his family in the U.K. While trying to overcome his addiction, he finds himself going cold turkey in the now rundown “china room” where Mehar used to live along with her sisters-in-law. The man’s story somewhat echoes Mehar’s, and when he falls for a female doctor who’s more than a decade older than he, the local village is rife with gossip.
Through short chapters and sparse, tightly wrought prose, Sahota’s novel is both easy to read and difficult to put down. Something of a hometown hero, not only in the old steel town of Sheffield, where he currently resides, but also to British Indian and Asian writers, Sahota cements his place in a vibrant literary canon alongside Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Hari Kunzru and others.