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China Room

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"The follow-up to his Booker Prize-shortlisted The Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota's new novel follows characters across generations and continents (from Punjab to rural England) and is equally heart-wrenching." --Entertainment Weekly

"A gorgeous, gripping read." --Kamila Shamsie, author of Home Fire

"Cements [Sahota's] place in a vibrant literary canon alongside Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Hari Kunzru and others." --BookPage

A transfixing novel about two unforgettable characters seeking to free themselves--one from the expectations of women in early 20th century Punjab, and the other from the weight of life in the contemporary Indian diaspora

Mehar, a young bride in rural 1929 Punjab, is trying to discover the identity of her new husband. Married to three brothers in a single ceremony, she and her now-sisters spend their days hard at work in the family's "china room," sequestered from contact with the men--except when their domineering mother-in-law, Mai, summons them to a darkened chamber at night. Curious and strong willed, Mehar tries to piece together what Mai doesn't want her to know. From beneath her veil, she studies the sounds of the men's voices, the calluses on their fingers as she serves them tea. Soon she glimpses something that seems to confirm which of the brothers is her husband, and a series of events is set in motion that will put more than one life at risk. As the early stirrings of the Indian independence movement rise around her, Mehar must weigh her own desires against the reality--and danger--of her situation.

Spiraling around Mehar's story is that of a young man who arrives at his uncle's house in Punjab in the summer of 1999, hoping to shake an addiction that has held him in its grip for more than two years. Growing up in small-town England as the son of an immigrant shopkeeper, his experiences of racism, violence, and estrangement from the culture of his birth led him to seek a dangerous form of escape. As he rides out his withdrawal at his family's ancestral home--an abandoned farmstead, its china room mysteriously locked and barred--he begins to knit himself back together, gathering strength for the journey home.

Partly inspired by award-winning author Sunjeev Sahota's family history, China Room is at once a deft exploration of how systems of power circumscribe individual lives and a deeply moving portrait of the unconquerable human capacity to resist them. At once sweeping and intimate, lush and propulsive, it is a stunning achievement from a contemporary master.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published July 13, 2021

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About the author

Sunjeev Sahota

9 books279 followers
Sunjeev Sahota is a British novelist. Sahota was born in 1981 in Derby, and his family moved to Chesterfield when he was seven years old. His paternal grandparents had emigrated to Britain from the Punjab in 1966. After finishing school, Sahota studied mathematics at Imperial College London. As of January 2011, he was working in marketing for the insurance company Aviva.

Sahota had not read a novel until he was 18 years old, when he read Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children while visiting relatives in India before starting university. After Midnight's Children, Sahota went on to read The God of Small Things, A Suitable Boy and The Remains of the Day. In an interview in January 2011, he stated:
It was like I was making up for lost time – not that I had to catch up, but it was as though I couldn't quite believe this world of storytelling I had found and I wanted to get as much of it down me as I possibly could.

In 2013 he was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Sahota's first novel, Ours are the Streets, was published in January 2011 by Picador. He wrote the book in the evenings and at weekends because of his day job. The novel tells the story of a British Pakistani youth who becomes a suicide bomber. His second novel, The Year of the Runaways, about the experience of illegal immigrants in Britain, was published in June 2015.

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5 stars
1,531 (20%)
4 stars
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3 stars
2,126 (27%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 924 reviews
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,535 reviews24.6k followers
July 27, 2021
On the Booker Prize Longlist 2021

A beautifully written and emotionally heartbreaking novel with dream like qualities from Sunjeev Sahota that captivates and immerses the reader in Britain in the 1990s and 1929 rural Punjab, amidst a India in which can be glimpsed the political turbulence and the intense fight for independence from Britain. The origins of this book lie in Sahota's family history, so there are elements of fact blended with fiction, it is just not transparent which is which. An unnamed young man, lonely, alienated and isolated, ground down by the relentless racism, overt and hidden, and the violence of the life he has experienced, culturally estranged, finds himself in the throes of a heroin addiction. Despite knowing little of India, he finds himself in the family home in the Punjab to address his addiction prior to starting university.

His timeline and life connects with that of his great grandmother, Mehar, who as a young girl has an arranged marriage. She, along with Harbans and Gurleen, marry 3 brothers on the same day, in a period of time when they are expected to live under oppressive 'traditions' and rigid expectations, subject to the whims of rumours and judgements of small communities. Their lives are separate from the brothers, and whilst the men know who they are married to, they are kept in the dark, ruled over by their overbearing mother-in-law Mai, who organises the couplings, where there is a strong desire for a son. Any questions as to the brothers are rebuffed, and Mehar is to find her efforts for clarity and independence bring danger and threats.

Family trauma carries across generations in this narrative of connecting common themes of identity, being trapped and imprisoned by suffocating power structures, yet the kernal of resistance and resilience to be found in the human spirit, to shape personal identity and to be independent, refuses to be extinguished, even where it may fail. This is thoughtful, atmospheric, and understated storytelling of two different time periods, of interior lives, emotions and feelings, unafraid of ambiguity or lack of answers, touching on issues such as religion, deception, betrayal, family, the position of girls and women and lives of Asians in contemporary Britain. Highly recommended. Many thanks to Random House Vintage for an ARC.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,740 reviews1,188 followers
October 4, 2021
I re-read this book after its longlisting for the 2021 Booker Prize and had similar views to my first read.

There was one photo that I’d focus on, a small picture in a dark-wood frame. It was of my great grandmother, an old white haired woman who’d travelled all the way to England just so they she might hold me ………… The photo hung there quietly as I sat at the table, opened up my laptop and started to write ………… I’d been clearing the ground the better to see what was in front of me, which was the past. All sorts of pasts in fact, including the one that found me rehabilitating on a farm in India, in 1999, the summer after I turned eighteen.

This is the third novel by the author, who like me has a mathematics degree and like me started his career, post-graduation, working for a life insurance company (our paths rather diverged after that).

The author’s second novel “The Runaways” was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize and was also winner of that year’s Royal Society of Literature’s Encore Award for literary second novels.

My own views on that book (one of what I have to say was, in my view, a poor Booker shortlist with a winner that was not to my taste at all) was that it was a triumph of theme and ideas (a topical and engaging treatment of the hidden lives of economic immigrants to the UK and the contrasts and interactions between their lives in India and England) over execution (a lack of plausible and distinguishable characters, the over-heavy use of untranslated objects, expressions and distinctions and a very weak epilogue).

The author was discussing his ideas for a third novel in interviews around 2015 but in time the form of the novel changed – originally it had been intended as a magic realism novel roaming across time and with a rather broad sense of place, but it has ended as a much quieter novel, while still drawing on the same genesis - a family legend about his great-grandmother, who with three other women was married to four brothers – but “None of them knew which man she was married to ….because they had to remain veiled the whole time. There was no electricity. It was in the middle of nowhere on a rural farmstead and they didn’t know who was the husband, so the story goes.”

Now that strand – but much more firmly rooted in time, place and harsh reality, forms one of the two point of view tales which are interleaved in the novel – and perhaps draws more on a Shakespearean tradition of mistaken identity than magic realism.

Set in 1929 rural Punjab, we follow the third-party story of Mehar living in a small standalone building on a farm (known as the “China Room” due to its decoration) with two other women – Harbans and Gurleen. The three were married on the same day to the brothers: the oldest of which is Jeet and the youngest the rather rebellious Suraj. The family Matriach Mai gives the brothers permission to sleep with their wives on different nights – but the veiled women are not allowed to view their husbands. The narrative development in the book occurs when Mehar starts meeting Suraj (who she works out from observation must be her husband) outside of Mai’s supervision.

The second first-party strand is set 70 years later – as Mehar’s great grandson, shortly before taking up an unconditional offer to study Maths. at Imperial, travels to visit his Aunt and Uncle in India, ostensibly for a family visit but really in an attempt to go cold turkey from heroin addiction. His initial technique seems to be largely to use whisky as a substitute, and in the face of his Aunt’s hostility and his Uncle’s embarrassment he is shipped off to a deserted family farm and ends up staying in the same China Room.

There as he reflects on his upbringing – and the overt as well as persistent racism that his family faced after Thatcher-era redundancy lead them to give up their life in Derby (surrounded by family and kin) to set up a shop in an otherwise uniformly-white ex-mining town and which acted as a trigger for his addiction. He also starts a tentative involvement with a visiting Doctor and an initially awkward friendship with a local teacher (both around 20 years older than him) and the two start to draw him out of his addiction, while he also reflects on the locally well-known story of his great grandmother and discovers insights into his Aunt’s past.

This section is introduced in 2019 as the narrator returns to the family shop to nurse his father post a knee operation (see opening quote) – a real life incident which crystallised the writing of the novel.

Overall this is a novel I think for which the word “understated” will frequently appear in reviews.

The 1929 section is quietly powerful but the modern day section for me did not work as well as it could have done. Some of the sections set in the narrator’s childhood were very powerful – for example a remembered ill-fated visit to a birthday party, glimpses of the struggles in the lives of his parents – but I felt these could have been longer. And I felt that the narrator’s initial struggles with addiction were rather disregarded over time and replaced with more of a relationship story.

The real strength is the links though of ideas and themes between the two stories - a desire for belonging, identity, connection and of grasping for some form of self-determination in the face of societal prejudice and expectations. Mehar has her freedom constrained by a very prescribed role set out for her, the narrator and his parents by contrast when they move are constrained by the fact that they are seen as not having any welcome role at all to play in the life of the town.

The book is also underpinned by a sense of loss and of having to settle for a substitute or reduced status.

This extends beyond the narrator and Mehar, to his parents, to Mai, to both Jeet and Suraj (for different reasons), to his Aunt and Uncle (again mourning different things), and empathetically even to those who in the mining town (the “villain” in the birthday party scene is himself struggling with the loss of his miner-identity and the shame of his new job as a shelf stacker – deliberately taking night shifts so as not to be seen).

3.5 rounded up.

My thanks to Random House UK, Vintage for an ARC via NetGalley
Profile Image for Meike.
1,468 reviews2,291 followers
January 22, 2023
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021
Now available in German: Das Porzellanzimmer

This novel has quite a few flaws, but I really enjoyed reading it, thus four instead of three stars. The title-giving China Room has nothing to do with the country in Asia, but refers to a small chamber shared by three young brides (and where some porcelain from their mother-in-law's dowry is stored). It's the year 1929 in rural Punjab, and 15-year-old Mehar wonders which of the three brothers of the house is her husband, as all three girls have been married the same day and are kept unaware of who is whose husband - sexual meetings always occur in a windowless room, in almost complete darkness. When Mehar presumes that she has found out which one is her spouse, tragedy ensues...

In the second, much shorter storyline which is intertwined with the larger portion of the text, we meet Mehar's great-grandson who lives in England (colonizer of India), but comes back to Punjab and the China room before his first year of university in order to free himself of his heroin addiction - and who seems to be the one telling his own and Mehar's story in hindsight. He remains unnamed, but at the end of the text, we see a photo of an old woman holding a baby, which suggests that the great-grandson might be an alter ego of the author. As Sahota was born in 1981, it makes sense that he might have graduated school in 1999, the year the second narrative thread is set. In an interview with the author, he explains that the text is indeed based on an old family legend - but while the common narrative tends to patronize the poor people in the olden days, he wanted to highlight the tragedy, their plight.

I liked how Sahota linked his motifs between the two storylines, and I also found the narrative suspenseful and interesting. Sure, many questions remain unresolved, and the novel could have been longer and could have given more details - in the end, I would have enjoyed to stay longer with the characters, because I wanted to know more about the years and people left out. The atmospheric writing is highly effective and touching.

But then again, this proves that the novel is interesting and smart - a book about family, about loneliness, longing and belonging, about trying to take control of one's own life. Both Mehar and her great-grandson feel foreign and marginalized, although for different reasons, and they both try to break free from what restricts them. Is the China room a place of protection or a prison - that's a question that tends to come up in different variations.

In all of his novels, Sunjeev Sahota ponders questions of class, and this is no exception: It shows how intergenerational trauma permeates centuries and countries, how the wish to escape marginalization is the common root of the pain depicted. I hope there will be a new novel by Sahota soon!
Profile Image for Henk.
819 reviews
August 18, 2021
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021

Quite forgettable for me, with a mirrored history/modern day timeline, in which I found the latter much more interesting but lacking in execution
A scandal, that was all these people wanted, some easy story that they could loop around a person’s neck, and lynch them with.

When I picked China Room up it read easily enough, but I was hardly compelled to pick it up. We follow Mehar, 15 year old, who is married of to three brothers. Her life in rural India is confined, presided over by the whims of her mother in law. The Handmaid's Tale comes to mind in the importance procreation of a son is given. Together with Mehar also Gurleen, older and richer and Harbans got married. The way women are treated, despite freedom movements rising in the vicinity of the village, is terrible and decidedly unfree (It’s different for women, isn’t it. They have no choice in where they go. They grow up in a prison and then get married into one), with marriages already arranged at 5.
The whole concept of the girls not knowing their husbands leading to trouble (which kind of trouble you can very well imagine upfront) feels very YA to me, maybe fitting for a 15 year old main character, but still I can hardly believe when living in such a tight circle of 7 persons that one would make the mistake Mehar makes.

Returning to the modern day timeline, I remember not much from the events that drove this narrator to the farm of his great grandmother to be fair. The modern day story line has a boy coming clean of heroin.

I felt no emotional punch or touch at the end despite the book being written competently enough, hence 2.5 stars rounded down.
Profile Image for Doug.
1,931 reviews666 followers
November 20, 2021
I admit that I am an unabashed Indophile, so much so that all my cats are named after Bollywood actresses - so I was, I guess, predisposed to enjoy this, since many of my favorite books (A Suitable Boy; Manil Suri's Hindu Gods Trilogy; everything by Anuradha Roy, etc) are by Indian authors and/or about Indian subjects. However, Sahota's last (also Booker nommed) novel I was decidedly ambivalent about, finding it difficult in places, and not quite so engaging as his latest.

Some have opined that this interweaving of two tales, apparently based on the author's own family stories, and set 70 years apart, gives short shrift to the more contemporary one - but while I'd agree it could have perhaps used a bit more explication in places, I didn't think it suffered any from the spotlight placed on the 1929 section.

And that I found simply glorious, so much so that I raced through this in less than 2 days. It's a book I can almost guarantee I will reread at some point, and it would make a terrific movie. Sadly, I doubt it stands much chance of winning the Booker this year, but from what I've read so far, am crossing fingers it makes the shortlist.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,902 reviews35.3k followers
August 9, 2021
Two different time periods….1920’s and 1990’s…between India and England…inspired by the authors own history.

Gender-power, freedom, oppression, segregation, racism, betrayal, secrets, addiction, identity, and love are themes in this family saga historical novel.

Three wives- three husbands…one ceremony.
…who sleeps with who?

a rehabilitating heroin addict…
…does he sleep at all?

I enjoyed this story and the characters.
It felt a little silly at times …
but it was meticulously personal, (heartbreaking and heartwarming )….
….quick irresistible novel.

Funny moment….
“Oh, go crack an egg”.

Profile Image for Lisa.
1,414 reviews531 followers
August 27, 2021
China Room is split into two narratives set in Punjab, a young man in 1999 and a bride in 1929. I like the way Sahota writes, but I needed to understand the characters more. And I needed more to happen. The whole novel felt underbaked.
Profile Image for Shawna Finnigan.
453 reviews299 followers
May 25, 2021
Nearly every trigger warning imaginable is necessary for this book, so please only read this book if you feel you can handle triggering topics. This book was less than 300 pages, but it is emotionally draining and extremely difficult to handle. Had I known this beforehand, I might not have picked up this book as soon as I did.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an advanced reader’s copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway.

I find it hard to rate this book as it is not my culture that this book is centered on and I read that this book is somewhat based off of the author’s own family history, but I still want to express my opinions on this book the best that I can and this review might turn into a rant... If this book interests you, don’t let my dissatisfaction in the book hinder you from reading it, but do proceed with caution as this book effected me mentally while I read it.

China Room has two stories that are loosely connected. One follows a girl in 1929 who is in an arranged marriage and some events happen that cause her life to go down a path she wasn’t expecting. The other story is about a man who is struggling with ending his drug addiction.

I appreciate how this book allowed me to see into another way of life and another time period. I also enjoyed the writing style as the author has a way with words that are easy to read yet at the same time very well written. However, I had many problems with this book.

To start off with each story was not dived into too deeply. It felt like by combining these two stories into one short book, neither story was fleshed out to its full potential. I didn’t fully understand the reasoning behind each character’s actions and I didn’t understand the historical events that were briefly mentioned in the book. Maybe a longer book or two separate books could’ve provided much needed detail and context to many parts of the story that were lacking.

And more importantly, the portrayal and treatment of women was a problem. This is not a women empowering book. Not every book needs to be, but I was horrified by what I read in this book. Women were only viewed as a wife or as sex objects. There was one woman who seemed to stand her own ground and be independent, but even then the narrator was thinking lustful comments about her. It felt very demeaning for women. None of the relationships had any actual chemistry or attraction in them. It was all lust and sex. Women were the inferior beings throughout this book and I tried to remind myself that the stories were set in a different time period, but even the women seemed to feel purely lust for the men. As a women, it was disheartening to read how women were discussed and presented in this book.

This book just was not what I hoped for and it’s a book that I think will be hard for many to get through. It was especially hard for me and while I enjoyed the writing style, this is not a book that I will look back on with favorable memories.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
479 reviews583 followers
August 29, 2021
Two storylines are interwoven in this engaging novel from Sunjeev Sahota. The first is set in 1929 and examines the fate of 15-year-old Mehar. Along with two other girls, she has been married to three brothers in rural Punjab, but the identity of her husband is kept from her. Mistakenly believing it to be Suraj, the youngest sibling, she gives herself to him one afternoon, and a relationship blossoms despite the circumstances. In the present day, the narrator recalls the summer of 1999, when he travelled to the same part of India to stay with his uncle, in an attempt to battle his drug addiction. He turns out to be the great grandson of Mehar and is fascinated to hear stories of his ancestor that echo through the village. Assisted by a beguiling local doctor, he takes it upon himself to redevelop the crumbling house in which she lived, including the china room in which the three wives once slept.

The book is based on Sahota's family history, specifically a rumour that his great-grandmother was married to one of four brothers, not knowing which. I don't know if the young man battling the heroin problem is him, but it's a convincing account of a self-destructive struggle. I've seen a few reviews complaining that the two storylines don't have enough connecting them, but I disagree. There is the family link, and the present-day narrator comes to recognise the trauma that both he and his forebear went through. There is also an element of forbidden love to both strands. For me, the juxtaposition of storylines worked, and the book held me under its spell, wondering how the main characters would overcome their difficulties. A deserving Booker nominee, China Room is a precisely crafted and engrossing tale.

Favourite Quotes:
"Later, she’ll wonder if that is the essence of being a man in the world, not simply desiring a thing, but being able to voice that desire out loud."

"‘You know what the best thing is about falling out of love? It sets you free. Because when you’re in love it is everything, it is imprisoning, it is all there is, and you’d do anything, anything, to keep that love. But when it withers you can suddenly see the rest of the world again, everything else floods back into the places that love had monopolised.’"
Profile Image for Trudie.
518 reviews551 followers
August 3, 2021
Yeah, ok. That was fine, I guess.

I am struggling to articulate why this perfectly ok novel failed to ignite much interest from me. Searching for answers I read some published reviews ( mostly excellent by the way, so take my reaction as just some Booker-related huffiness )
But I begin to see what other reviewers see as strengths I saw as the road to blah-town.

From the Guardian :

essentially a novel of interior life and sensation, plot.... lightly sketched, as with much else in the novel, subtlety.....refuses to let his historical characters act as though they are in a historical novel, dramatically hushed ....

Dramatically hushed is about right. It seems I might have been expecting a lush, evocative Indian historical drama with deeply drawn characters set amongst political turmoil. A little bit Rohinton Mistry perhaps. This is... not that. Perhaps the fault lies with my expectations.

However, there is a second narrative strand here, which while not well-formed, showed sparks of a novel I did want to read. Set in 1999, partly in England, it gives a fleeting glimpse of the xenophobia that leads the protagonist back to India to recover from a Herion addiction. This is so lightly touched upon, a few pages told in flashback but powerful :

What was he thinking? Did he think he had made the right decision in coming here ? To this town? To England ? Did he wonder, like I did, like I still do whenever I see my daughter be so casually, so unthinkingly, sidelined in the playground, did he too wonder if these people would ever agree to share ownership of this land ? Did he worry that our lives here would always be seen as fundamentally illegitimate ?

I find I am guilty of wanting this to be an entirely different novel but ultimately this remains a curiously underbaked effort.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,254 reviews49 followers
August 9, 2021
Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2021

I have read quite a lot of negative and lukewarm reviews of this one, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. OK, there is nothing very innovative about it, but the perspective Sahota brings to this family story is an interesting one.

The story has two strands.

In the first, set in the 1920s, three young brides marry three brothers who live on a small farm in rural Punjab. Under the strict rules women lived under there, they are not allowed to see their husbands' faces, and the youngest of them, Mehar, is seduced by the youngest brother, who is not her husband.

In the second strand, the narrator, Mehar's great-grandson, recounts a trip he made as an 18-year old heroin addict to the same part of Punjab, initially to stay with his uncle and aunt, and then on the now derelict family farm.

The older part of the story is told in very short chapters, the modern story in longer ones.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,108 reviews8,023 followers
August 3, 2021
[3 stars]

Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize

Sunjeev Sahota examines his family history in this historical novel that moves between the early and late 20th century in India.

The first sentence reads, “Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband.”

1929. Mehar and two other young girls are married off in a single ceremony to three brothers. Their oppressive and controlling new mother-in-law, Mai, keeps them in the dark as to which of the brothers each has actually married. Their only encounters with their new husbands happen in the dark, behind closed doors, as they attempt to bear sons for the family.

1999. An unnamed 18-year-old boy in the throes of a heroin addiction spends the summer in his ancestral village as he detoxes and attempts to salvage what is left of his life before heading off to university in the fall. During his stay, he falls in love with an older woman and discovers information about his great-grandmother and the china room.

The premise is what pulled me into this story. I love the back and forth timelines and the idea that one of the main characters didn’t know who her own husband was intrigued me. There are very tense moments in this novel that kept me turning the pages. And it’s a quick, propulsive read.

However, I was a bit letdown by this story. Each of the storylines could have been its own novel. My biggest issue with this book is that it’s underdeveloped. I did enjoy it and it’s well written. There just wasn’t enough for me. It’s not even 250 pages and tried to juggle two stories and a historical setting that never fully came to fruition for me. It’s a bit surface level, especially for something that seems so close to the authors life (it’s fair to assume the 1999 storyline is heavily autobiographical and Mehar is the author’s own great-grandmother).

Overall, I liked this story but it didn’t blow me away. I never read Sahota’s Booker listed “The Year of the Runaways” but I’d still be willing to give it a shot. From the other reviews I’ve read, this one doesn’t seem to stack up to his other work. I’ll be curious to hear what more people think when the book comes out on July 13.

Thank you to the publisher for providing me a free, early copy of this book. All thoughts & opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Eric Anderson.
650 reviews3,186 followers
August 25, 2021
“China Room” begins with a gripping and terrifying situation. In the year 1929 three young women are married to three brothers on a farm in rural Punjab that's overseen by strict matriarch Mai. But newly married teenage Mehar (who has been given this name by her new family) doesn't even know which man is her husband. Conjugal visits take place in total darkness and she's not allowed to interact with the men during the day when she and her sisters-in-law must conceal themselves under veils and perform gruelling chores. She attempts to figure out his identity and becomes embroiled in a dangerous situation. Interspersed with her tale is the story of her great grandson who recounts a time in 1999 when he traveled to this family farm while trying to overcome his drug addiction and escape racism in England. It's so touching how details he encounters such a flecks of paint on a wall or a crumbling disused structure have such a potent meaning when we also see them in this earlier story. It builds narrative tension as well as poignancy as we gradually learn the truth about Mehar's struggle to achieve independence and what she desires. The novel beautifully builds a bridge across time connecting two family members from very different generations whose only physical connection resides in a faded photography.

It's a coincidence that before reading this novel I read “Great Circle” which also features a dual timeline where clues are gradually revealed in alternating stories to show a more complex and nuanced account of history. It's an impactful narrative technique but I think it does make it challenging to balance the accounts so that they feel equally impactful. There were moments in both novels when I resented being drawn out of the urgency of the stories from the past. However, this form of storytelling does make me reflect in a more complicated and dynamic way about my own limited understanding of my ancestors and how little I know about the complex challenges they faced in their lifetime. Therefore I really felt how the narrator of the “China Room” has such a powerful yearning to uncover the truth and connect with a lineage lost in the murky pages of history in order to progress with his own life.

Read my full review of China Room by Sunjeev Sahota on LonesomeReader
Profile Image for Neale .
285 reviews125 followers
October 21, 2021
The novel is broken into two narrative arcs joined by blood. The major storyline is set in Punjab, 1929. The protagonist is 15-year-old Mehar. Mehar and two other women are all married to three brothers in one single ceremony. The intriguing part is that none of the women know which of the brothers is their husband. Mehar never sees her husband, working in the fields through the day, and at night he remains an elusive silhouette. When she does see him briefly through the day, her veil adds to his concealment.

The second shorter storyline takes place in 1999 and revolves around an 18-year-old narrator who is a heroin addict. He leaves his home in England and travels to the very farm where the first storyline takes place, and we learn that Mehar is his great-grandmother. He has moved to this farm in Punjab to break his addiction, before moving back to England to attend university.

Then there is the “china room” which gives the novel it’s title. It exists in both arcs as well. In the main storyline it is where the sisters-in-law live. In the other, seventy years later, it is an abandoned wreck used to provide rumours about Mehar and why there are bars on the window.

Both storylines are interesting and compliment each other. The first, being Punjab and 1929, explores themes of religion and caste. The terrible treatment of the women, who are essentially slaves in almost every facet of their lives, including sex. The birth of a son paramount to the patriarchal mother “Mai”.

The second deals with displacement, isolation and racism, with the narrator digging into memories from his past.

Both also contain love stories, one forbidden, one taboo, the seed for rampant rumors.

On the inside of the cover, it reads “Inspired in part by the author’s family history” This always adds an extra element to the narrative and has the reader pondering how much is fact and how much is fiction.

It is also beautifully written,

“He stands in the empty courtyard: above him the stars are bright and stitched into the day’s dark dress”.

Wonderful sentences such as this weave their way throughout the entire novel.

A very rewarding and enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Joy D.
1,765 reviews212 followers
August 9, 2021
Dual timeline story set in rural Punjab. The modern story involves a young man’s struggle with heroin addiction. He travels from England to India to live on his uncle’s farm while he goes through withdrawal. While there, he develops a fondness for a female doctor and learns more about a family secret involving his great grandmother. Many years later, he writes this story.

The historic timeline is set in Punjab in 1929. Mehar (whom we later find out is the young man’s great grandmother) is one of three young women, in their teens, married to three brothers. They are housed in the China Room (named for the dishes), apart from the family’s central residence. Each woman does not know which brother is her husband. They are controlled by a domineering mother-in-law, and are expected to be fully veiled, silent, and dutiful. Mehar is a bit of a rebel. She assumes one brother is her husband and eventually finds herself in trouble. This storyline is based on the author’s own family history.

I quickly became engrossed in the timeline that features the three sisters. From the start, we know something bad will happen to Mehar, so the atmosphere is tense, almost suffocating. I feel like the modern story is not quite as well developed, though there are a few parallels. Each story features a person in seclusion, a love story, and youthful mistakes. Each contains a political element – in the older story, the Free India movement gains momentum and in the modern story, immigrants are blamed for economic issues in the UK.

The writing is evocative. I could picture the scenes in India in my mind, though I have never been there. It portrays how family trauma in one generation can impact future generations. It is particularly effective in conveying the way the human spirit attempts to break free of internally or externally imposed imprisonment.
Profile Image for David.
233 reviews475 followers
August 13, 2021
China Room tracks two parallel narratives - one set in 1929, following Punjabi child bride Mehar, and the other set in 1999, which follows her great-grandson. This setup had a lot of potential, and Sahota is a decently good writer, but this was just too unbalanced of a narrative. It read like an early manuscript that needed a good editor.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,165 followers
July 30, 2021
Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize

One of the weaker books on the list.

The story is told in two parts

- one set in rural Punjab in 1929, and which relies on the Shakespearian bed trick for its rather hokey plot, centred around Mehar, a young bride, one of three married to one of three brothers, but she isn't clear which (you can see where that story is going);

- one set 70 years later although, for no obvious reason, introduced by our unnamed first-person narrator with a brief passage from 20 years later in 2019. The great-grandson of Mehar, aged 19, and addicted to heroin, he is sent by his parents from the UK to his uncle's family who are still in Punjab, to rehabilitate. There he stays in the room where his great-grandmother was once imprisoned, learning a little (but very little) about her life, and otherwise not doing much.

To the extent the novel has power is it is the narrator's memories of his childhood, the racism he and his family experienced, and how he came to his addiction as a way of belonging. But that story is rather told in the cracks, and overshadowed by the two other, rather dull, narratives.

2 stars.
Profile Image for Ari Levine.
185 reviews139 followers
August 8, 2021
Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize

A slightly underwhelming 3.5, rounded down. I was genuinely impressed by Sahota's last novel, The Year of the Runaways, which deservedly made the Booker shortlist back in (checks notes) 2015. Others on GR have already described China Room as subtle, restrained, understated. and subdued, and they're not wrong.

Sahota's prose style is elegant and precise, evocatively describing a rural farming village in the Punjab in both 1929 and 1999. He deftly captures the interiority of his protagonists in this dual narrative, revealing the other characters through subjective narration and dialogue. And the conceit is a clever one, playing with tropes of actual confinement and metaphorical imprisonment, addiction and passion, alienation and subjugation. All of these thematic connections are implicit, I think overly implicit, left there for perceptive readers to pick up.

The main 1929 narrative strand certainly could have worked as a self-contained novel, and had ​momentum, tension, and drama that the second 1999 strand lacked. Mehar, one of three teenage girls who have been married into a Sikh family with three brothers in a joint ceremony, and spend most of their days confined inside an outbuilding ​by their horrifically domineering mother-in-law, Mai.

Trapped in a situation with mythic/fairy-tale resonances, the heavily-veiled wives are kept apart from their husbands, unable to ascertain which of the three brothers they've been married to, never seeing their faces when visited at night for reproductive sex. The plot hangs on a mistaken identity, a flimsy ruse out of Shakespeare, and slowly escalates into a predictably tragic conclusion, as Mehar attempts to carve out a small measure of agency for herself in an oppressively patriarchal system.

The narrative of the second strand is underpowered, and illuminates the first one only tangentially. Mehar's unnamed great-grandson has been shipped off to his uncle's house in India from the UK one summer to undergo heroin withdrawal before starting university in the fall. After disappointing his controlling and judgmental aunt (a latter-day Mai?), he moves into the old family farmhouse where Mehar lived. Cleaning up the property as a project to occupy his days, he discovers the room where she lived, and hears rumors about her legendary life, full of brutality, scandal, and betrayal.

This was a perfectly good novel, however uneven and flawed. Given how personal the story was for Sahota (Mehar is based on his own great-grandmother and the novel ends with a black-and-white photo of the two of them together), this reading experience felt oddly bloodless and disengaged.

Profile Image for Anita Pomerantz.
635 reviews96 followers
October 27, 2021
More in-depth thoughts to follow on https://thereadersroom.org/ where I am serving as a member of a panel (to analyze the Booker Prize).

However in a nutshell, I really loved reading this book. I'm not sure if it is original enough to win a big prize like the Booker, but I love books set in India (A Fine Balance, Shantaram, The White Tiger to name a few). This is a quieter, character-driven book, focused on emotions, specifically yearning . . .and books like that are my favorite. The writing reminded me a bit of Khaled Hosseini.

From the readersroom.org:

Is this book truly “Booker material”? Probably not, but I absolutely loved reading it. Two parallel tales of unrequited love, set in India (my personal favorite setting), just made me yearn for this book to be longer. The story that is set in the past is the more developed and interesting of the two. Three young women are married off to the three sons of a very shrewish, conniving mother-in-law, and none of them are quite sure which husband is theirs. This set up is a prescription for disaster . . .the kind where you can’t look away. So readable, but with wonderful cultural details. Where I think the book falls short is it lacks thematic punch. Great storytelling without the big ideas that a Booker prize winner usually delivers.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: 3/4
Plot development: 3/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 15/20
Profile Image for Canadian Reader.
1,045 reviews4 followers
September 13, 2021
An enjoyable, accessible, and relatively brief work of literary fiction set in the Punjab that concerns itself with marriage, sexual passion and possessiveness, sibling rivalry, self-agency, and the historically constricted lives of women. As engaging as it is, the novel feels a little thin and it contains soap-opera-ish elements; it requires the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

One of the novel’s two stories, set in the late ’90s, has a young British man of South-Asian descent visiting his uncle and aunt in the Punjab, apparently to sweat out his heroin addiction. Well aware of his aunt’s displeasure at having him in her home, he asks his uncle if he might stay on the abandoned ancestral farm, which he ends up partially renovating with the help of friends he makes in the village.

The other story, set in 1929, concerns the young man’s great-grandmother, Mehar, who as a teenage bride, lives on the farm with two other young women, their domineering mother-in-law, and her three sons. The girls don’t know which of the three brothers each is married to, as the husbands visit them on separate nights in total darkness in a room set aside to accommodate the “procreative aspect” of their marriages. Heirs and future labourers will be needed to keep the farm going. It is the women’s responsibility to produce those heirs; enjoyment of the duty apparently isn’t supposed to be part of the deal. On nights when none of the girls is otherwise engaged, the three sleep together in a storeroom where their mother-in-law’s willow-ware patterned dishes are shelved, the china room of the novel’s title. During the day, the wives slave away and interact little with the men. The reader is required to accept that Mehar mistakes the youngest brother for her husband. I accepted this Shakespearean device of mistaken identity, but did I believe a woman, even a young one, could be so oblivious about the body of her husband? Frankly, no.

Re: the 1990s narrative—I also didn’t buy that parents would send a teenage heroin addict in the immediate throes of opioid withdrawal to another continent to stay with relatives he’d not seen in years, one of whom is extremely angered by the young man’s presence.

Thanks to Net Galley and the publisher. I enjoyed the book, but I wish aspects had been more developed. Having just heard the author speak with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s Writers & Company, I appreciated the book a great deal more than I had right upon completion of it. I would be delighted to see it make the Booker shortlist.

Profile Image for Sarah.
1,197 reviews35 followers
May 21, 2021
3.5 rounded down

A quiet, restrained and understand novel set in early and late 20th century rural India through two members of one family: Mehar is a teenage bride who is married to one of three brothers in a Punjab family in 1929. The two other brothers are also married in the same ceremony to two other young women, and due to this - and the fact that the wives lead separate lives from their husbands and their encounters are only in darkened rooms - she does not know which brother she is married to. Mehar tries to figure out which brother she is married to, and this discovery changes the path of her life.

Fast forward to 1999 and a young man from the UK travels to the now abandoned home of his relatives at the behest of his parents in an attempt to help him kick his heroin addiction. During his stay he meets a young local woman who he strikes up a friendship with, which changes the path his life takes too.

The two narratives share themes (beyond the fact that the two protagonists are relatives), with the 1929 storyline making up probably about 3/4 of the book. I wished the 1999 plot had been developed further, as the ending in particular felt rushed and I wanted the characters to feel more fleshed out as I think this would have allowed it to sit better with the 1929 chapters.

A quick and enjoyable read, I guess I was just hoping for something a bit more. That said I'd definitely read another book by this author, and fans of historical fiction may find more to enjoy here.

Thank you Netgalley and Random House UK / Vintage for the advance copy, which was provided in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews621 followers
May 18, 2021
I received an email from the publisher offering me a chance to read this book via NetGalley. I have previously read and very much enjoyed Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways”, so my thanks to the publisher for the opportunity to read this new work from him.

China Room is partly based on an episode from Sahota’s family history. There is a picture at the end of the book of a young child being held by an elderly woman. Since the book tells parallel stories of a man and his great-grandmother, we can draw our own conclusions.

The bulk of the book is the story of Mehar in 1929 Punjab. On her wedding day, she and two other women were married to three brothers. But none of the women knows which brother is her husband and the domineering family matriarch keeps the women separate except when the men visit in darkness attempting to conceive a child, preferably a son. Mehar wants to know which man is her husband and starts to note evidence until she comes to a conclusion. This conclusion sets the main story in this part of the book in motion.

The other, much shorter, part of the book (interleaved with Mehar’s story) tells us about an unnamed man, our narrator and Mehar’s great-grandson, who recalls a time in the 1990s when he visited his ancestral home in Punjab in an attempt to get his life back on track.

Mehar’s story unfolds in a lot more detail than our narrator’s, but echoes between the two begin to emerge. Both tell stories of the growth of impossible love. Mehar’s story plays out against a violent backdrop of the Indian independence movement whereas our narrator’s problems arise from the action he has taken to numb the pain of racism growing up in the UK. In one story, a woman has value only as a mother for a male heir and is otherwise ignored or oppressed. In the other, the oppression comes from the racism endemic in the culture. Different contexts but similar searches for freedom.

The writing is strong. It is understated rather than showy and it evokes a real atmosphere, especially in Mehar’s story. I can easily imagine this book being made into a movie. For me, the 1990s story felt a bit under-developed or rushed. It’s not often I say this, but it is only a short book and I felt it could have been longer with the two parts more equal in length.

3.5 stars rounded up.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,346 reviews509 followers
August 9, 2021

They live in the china room, which sits at a slight remove from the house and is named for the old willow-pattern plates that lean on a high 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 little 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.

China Room really shouldn’t have worked for me — it’s kind of a sentimental historical drama, dripping with desire and forbidden love — but it touched me. I cared about the characters, was fascinated by the customs, and appreciated the long view that author Sunjeev Sahota provides by splitting the storyline between two members of a Punjabi Sikh family, three generations and seventy years apart. This is unlike Sahota’s last Man Booker nominated novel (The Year of the Runaways, which I loved), and although it feels less deep, it worked for me. Rounding up to four stars. (Note: I read an ARC through NetGalley and passages quoted may not be in their final forms.)

One hundred. Two hundred. Three hundred, he counts, barely working his lips and standing unmoving in the yard, in the moon. The sun in the moon. He looks about him, from the quiet of the barn to the charpoys stowed upright under the veranda, their long round legs like rifles, all the way across to the china room, shuttered in silence. He’d skipped over the double-doors at the rear of the porch. Now, he walks towards them, applies his hand to the flaking paint and steals inside, to where Mehar has been instructed to wait for her husband.

I have no idea how commonplace a practise the basic premise is: It is 1929 in the Punjab and a nasty matriarch has, over the lives of her three sons, arranged marriages for them with girls from distant villages, and in order to save money, she decides that all three ceremonies will happen on the same day. Three young women (from fourteen to nineteen) — always veiled in public with a material that only allows them to see their own feet and hands as they walk and work — move into the “china room” off the main house on their wedding day; and although they can peek through the slats of the blinds when the men are in the courtyard, none of brides have any clue which of the brothers is her own husband. Even when one of the brothers gets permission from his mother for a conjugal visit — for grandsons are wanted to work the family farm — the room that they couple in is so dark that none of the women can figure out which brother was hers; and it would apparently be bold and impious to ask. The most daring (and youngest) of the women, Mehar, decides to risk everything to make a deeper connection with her spouse.

Men have their needs. But for her life would be over. She can see herself now: head shaved, breasts exposed, the iron pigring around her neck and the coarse rope parading her through the village. She can hear the crowds calling her a dirty whore and feel the rocks cutting her flesh as she lurches to the well and jumps to her drowning end. Yes, for those reasons she will go. But, lying on her bed, her back to Harbans’ back, she recognises another note, a lighter, brighter music behind the crashing deathcymbals. She listens to it, and hears it for what it is: desire, her own, amplifying. She closes her eyes and whispers, out loud but so only she can hear it –‘I want you, too’– and then she reopens them, and for a long time she stares at the muddy apples spilled across the stone ledge of the window.

In a second storyline, it is 1999 and Mehar’s eighteen-year-old great-grandson returns to the Punjab from where he was raised in rural England, wanting to kick his heroin habit before starting university. When his sickly presence proves too upsetting for his uncle’s sour wife, the boy moves out to the old farm, eventually fixing up the homestead and unwittingly choosing the china room as his own sleeping quarters. Through the hard work and the company of some locals, the unnamed character regains his health and hears stories about the customs that still thwart people’s desires. Looking around at what seems to him like a fine place to live, and recalling instances of the racism and back-breaking work that his parents suffered through in order to give him a better life, he has to wonder if their sacrifices were really worth it.

‘You know what the best thing is about falling out of love? It sets you free. Because when you’re in love it is everything, it is imprisoning, it is all there is, and you’d do anything, anything, to keep that love. But when it withers you can suddenly see the rest of the world again, everything else floods back into the places that love had monopolised.’

Apparently roughly based on Sahota’s own family history (there is a photo at the end of a very old woman holding a baby; is that Mehar with her great-grandson, the author?), China Room has the feeling of truth to it; the plot didn’t go the way I expected, but such is life. This novel doesn’t employ sophisticated literary tricks, and I could even call it lightweight, but it weighed on me all the same. Call me pleasantly surprised.
Profile Image for Vartika.
352 reviews591 followers
August 15, 2021
At the end of China Room is reproduced an old, black-and-white photograph—of the author as an infant in the arms of his great-grandmother. In a sense, it is too a reproduction and re-iteration of the point where this story begins; the prompt that led to the writing of a semi-autobiographical novel that deals with themes of oppression and alienation, passion and addiction, and a yearning to break out of confines both physical and metaphorical to take control of one's own life. These themes, like the two teenagers whose struggles they illuminate, are closely related, but relayed to us in the form of events taking place 70 years apart.

Mehar is a 15-year-old who, in 1929, is married off in a joint ceremony to one of three brothers, unaware which is which but determined to find out. The unnamed narrator is a fictionalised version of a 19-year-old Sahota himself, who in 1999 returns from to his ancestral village in Punjab to sober up before starting university. Their stories take place against the backdrop of a tumultuous political moment each (in Mehar's case, the beginning of India's call for complete Independence), but these larger settings are largely muted: China Room is a story of the interior world of its characters, politically resonant all the same and intertwining across generations around the physicality of a room once decked out in prized porcelain—the source of the immediate setting of this novel, as well as its very name.

Propulsive and subdued quite at the same time, the novel allows one to feel the weight of the traumas of misogyny, violence, racism, and other social strictures that bind its characters (including the protagonists as well as those in their periphery: the husband, the brothers and sisters-in-law, the immigrant parents, the uncle, aunt, and friends, all are similarly cut-off from attaining fulfilment, and therefore, freedom), even as it lacks a certain sense of solidity in prioritising essence over execution. Although one can easily detect the author's attempts at deftly trying to intertwine the two narratives in an understated fashion, the final product feels somewhat incomplete. That may well be resultant of the blending of personal history and family lore, which are never easy to write of and certainly not in the manner the author here essays.

If memory serves correctly, it was Salman Rushdie—incidentally the first novelist Sahota ever read—who spoke of the "imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind" that members of the diaspora are given to in their writing. There is certainly something to be said of the way in which this is done in China Room: while Sahota's 'homeland' itself is free from the kind of nostalgic, elegiac tone Rushdie alludes at, his descriptions of village life nevertheless seem aimed for consumption by 'other eyes'; the central tensions in both narratives too reflect those of cinematic and soap operas set in their respective eras. However, these are mere observations and not value judgements, and the author does succeed in producing a tale that reaches varying degrees of compelling for various readers.

Speaking for myself: perhaps it was the cultural setting that rendered most of the plot predictable to me, but I was nevertheless hooked the entire time I was reading this book. While I may not necessarily pick it up again, China Room made for a serious but enjoyable weekend read.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Dan.
443 reviews4 followers
August 29, 2021
But why that second plot? 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Claire Fuller.
Author 12 books1,960 followers
August 6, 2021
I really enjoyed this. It has a wonderful sense of place, in particular, a farm in Punjab. We see it in 1929 when it is thriving and inhabited by three brothers, their mother, and their three wives whom they married on the same day. And we see it in 1999 when an unnamed young English man stays there in order to wean himself off heroin, and when the farm is run down and abandoned. In the 1929 sections Mehar, one of the new brides, tries to work out which of the brothers is her husband (she has never looked at him directly), and when she believes she has got it right, the story unfolds. In the 1999 the young man has come to stay with his uncle, but ends up living at the farm and falling in love for the first time. Mehar's sections are stronger than the more modern sections, and there were many times when I had my heart in my mouth. I also really liked how Sahota describes Mehar and her sisters' domestic duties - it was all so vivid. With themes of societal constraint/control, racism, sexism, as well as unrequited love, this is a book full of meaning, but also just a really enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Andrea.
755 reviews31 followers
October 7, 2021
Booker longlist + dual timeline + Indian setting + short -> should be a winning formula for me. I thought it was good, but it didn't blow me away. Surprisingly I preferred the 1999 story more than the 1929 one, when I suspect, if anything, it was meant to be the other way around.

In 1929 rural Punjab, three young women marry three brothers in the same ceremony. They don't know which brother they are marrying because they don't need to. Following their nuptials the women move into the 'China Room', the domestic hub of their mother-in-law's home. It's separate from the main house, and it's where they work and sleep most of the time. When their husbands want to have sex (nothing romantic about this), the MIL lets them know and they wait in a darkened room, modestly veiled. Mehar, the youngest bride, quite likes her husband, gaining the impression of a gentle and kind man. But she still couldn't confidently pick him out of a lineup! This can only lead to trouble.

In 1999, Mehar's descendant, a young man, arrives from London to visit his uncle in the Punjabi village of his ancestors. He's there to get clean from his heroin addiction before entering university. After a rough couple of weeks, he entreats his uncle to let him stay alone at the abandoned family farm, a bicycle-ride from the village. He is intrigued by the locked and barred China Room and the past events that it has seen.

My main regret is that I was just as confused as the brides in regard to the brothers' identities. I think this was largely to do with reading the audiobook edition - if I'd been reading text, I may have been able to follow that aspect of the story a little easier. Still, it was an entertaining read, and at a mere 5 hours, quite a short one.
Profile Image for Jill.
1,154 reviews1,607 followers
August 22, 2021
“Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won’t try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband.”

China Room starts like a fairy tale – Goldilocks and the Three Bears meets Beauty and the Beast. It is set in 1929 in India, where women are regarded as little more than breeding mares, and Mehar is chosen to be the wife of one of three brothers. Which brother it is doesn’t matter, although we find out rather quickly that her husband is the eldest of the brothers.

Women are veiled and “the act” takes place in darkness with the briefest of verbal exchanges, so what could go wrong? Just this: Mehar falls in love with Suraj, the middle brother, believing he is her husband, and he, in turn, falls in love with her. This profane love cannot bode well.and carries grave risks.

The story, inspired by Sunjeev Sahota’s family history is created with strong story-telling skills and a fair share of claustrophobic tension. The novel takes his title from the cramped china room – complete with willow-pattern plates—that the breeding mare (Mahar) must go to when requested by her officious mother-in-law to meet her “husband” and hopefully, “get with child.”

Interspersed with this story is that of a young man who is sent to his uncle in rural Punjab to get through the ravages of heroin withdrawal. As it turns out, he is the great-grandson of Mehar. Living in Mehar’s former house and building a crush on an older female doctor who visits him there, he tries to separate facts from legends.

Sunjeev Sahota is a powerful writer, but the Mehar story is far more intriguing than the narrative of her great-grandson. During his chapters, I found myself yearning to get back to the stronger of the interjoining tales. Ultimately, this was a transfixing if not totally satisfactory novel.
Profile Image for David.
588 reviews124 followers
August 1, 2021
"Not all prisons have bars," Radhika said, extinguishing the cigarette under her sandal. "And not all love is a prison."

This is a really solid novel with an interesting story, sympathetic (but imperfect) characters, and excellent writing. I was quite enchanted by it and easily immersed in both timelines, which are separated by three generations. It will almost certainly be on my own short list, even if this year's judges pass it up.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Alex.
630 reviews86 followers
August 16, 2021
Booker Prize Longlist (8/13)

Sunjeev Sahota wrote the wonderful refugee novel THE YEAR OF THE RUNAWAYS, a intricate and emotional journey that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (unlucky to have arrived the same year as A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS and A LITTLE LIFE). Sahota follows up with a much shorter but just as emotional novel, CHINA ROOM. This has been strong year of novels choosen by the Booker jury, but this is the first one I have deeply loved, entranced by the beautiful prose, the perfectly paced plot and the devastating conclusion.

The plot is divided in time and perspective. The first that of Mehar, a Punjab woman chosen as wife to a man she does not know, the man's mother keeping his identity secret from the bride as three brothers decide which of three woman will be their spouse. Confused and tricked, Mehar falls into a triste with the man she believes is her husband but soon discovers is the man's brother. Facing scandal and punishment Mehar and her lover must decide whether their union is lustful or love-filled. Decades later, Mehar's England-raised grandson returns to his family's hometown, trying to kick a heroin addiction. He ends up in the house where Mehar's life turned and confronts the ghosts that still haunt the space and the stories of her fate that continue to linger among the townspeople.

Sahota neatly intertwines the threads connecting the past and present, never forcing obvious connections, letting the reader make its mind how the common forces of love and friendship shape the protagonists. He manages to confront heavy themes of arranged marriage and largely gendered injustices through a tragic love story. His prose is delicate, beautiful and his plotting is spectacular, managing to foreshadow the inevitable without lessening the reader's desire to find out what will happen.

A certain shortlister if it is up to me.
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