China Room focuses on the story of Mehar, a 16-year-old bride in 1929 rural Punjab. Married into a family of three brothers in a single ceremony, she’s unsure as to which of the men is her husband and spends her days alongside her new sister-in-laws hard at work in the family’s ‘china room’. Their only contact with the men is at night, when their cruel mother-in-law summons the women to a darkened chamber for them to have sex with their husbands. Desperate to know which of the men she’s married to, Mehar looks for clues to confirm her husband’s identity and ends up in a lot more trouble than she bargained for.
The other half of the narrative follows a young man in the summer of 1999 who is sent from a small-town in England to his uncle’s house in Punjab to shake an addiction that has held him in its grip for over two years. Riding out his withdrawal on the family’s ancestral home, he begins to knit himself back together and in the meantime uncovers some truths about his family history.
Sunjeev Sahota has written three novels (two of which were in the running for the Booker prize) with China Room being his most recent work. Both streams of the narrative addressed themes of intergenerational trauma, social expectations and physical/emotional incarceration. I didn’t find its approach to female emancipation very hopeful and at times I felt it bleak without much respite, but I liked that China Room covered a period of South Asian history we don’t often see in literary novels and I enjoyed Sahota’s understated writing style.
Thank you Vintage for the book (and the chai)!