Sunjeev Sahota’s two previous novels sought to go behind the headlines about the experiences of British Asians. His promise was clear from his debut, Ours are the Streets (2011), which used the first-person testimony of a Pakistani cab driver’s son in Sheffield to explore, and perhaps over-explain, the impulses involved in terrorist radicalisation. In The Year of the Runaways (2015), also set in Sheffield, he broadened his scope, turning to the third person for a magnificent social-realist saga centred on the ethno-sectarian rivalries of three male Indian migrants exploited by the city’s undercover economy.
The inspiration for his engrossing new novel feels more personal. Intricate yet compact, unfolding across four time frames in calm, controlled prose, China Room opens in rural Punjab in 1929, as resistance gathers against British rule. Mehar is a fifteen-year-old girl newly arrived in the household of a widow, Mai, who had arranged ten years earlier that Mehar should become the wife of one of her three sons. Together with her two new sisters-in-law, Mehar is forced to cook, clean and submit to nightly visits from a husband taking his pleasure while in search of a son.
That each girl is veiled means that none knows for sure which of Mai’s sons comes to her bed, at least at first. The situation, which is comical as well as horrific, exacerbates sibling tension between Mai’s eldest son, Jeet, and his younger brother Suraj, who resents that Jeet was allowed to choose Mehar, the girl both want; you can guess what happens next. Our attention in this segment is firmly held by Sahota’s open-minded handling of each character’s desires. Mehar, undaunted in her discovery of sex despite her enslavement, dreams of married life far from Mai’s farm, but the slow-dawning deceit in which she’s embroiled puts all the parties at risk – especially Mehar, being the most expendable.
Cut to the present. A London-based father of three, the son of Punjabi shopkeepers, is telling us about the time he spent living alone on his uncle’s dilapidated Indian farmhouse in his late teens as an A-level dropout recovering from heroin addiction. Recollections of the racism he and his parents suffered – which was the spur for his drug use – mingle with his account of how, during his visit to Punjab, he became interested in rumours of a great-grandmother who had been ostracised for her infidelity.
This narrative, gently paced, provides a welcome release from the steady jeopardy of the historical segments, as Mehar’s plight unspools in all its moral and emotional messiness. The question of how early she becomes aware of Suraj’s nightly visits to her bedroom is left nicely moot; by the time the two are embarking on furtive starlit trysts, for which she risks being paraded bare-breasted on a leash, she has no alternative course of action. It’s to Sahota’s credit that, writing from the points of view of both characters, he allows us to recognise that the subterfuge, while having tragic consequences, also represents a high-stakes farce, not least because the urgent need for an exit strategy can always be postponed when there is a prospect of imminent physical gratification.
Back in the present, the scenes from the narrator’s teenage years are kept afloat by the arrival of a young doctor, Radhika, to whom he takes a shine over evenings of cigarettes and whisky at the farmhouse where he is undergoing self-imposed rehab. We see that the story of Radhika’s past involves survival, revenge and ultimately liberation from the sorts of forces that oppressed Mehar. When Radhika encourages the narrator to find a purpose in renovating the farmhouse, the site of Mehar’s captivity, its value is plainly symbolic: a kind of moral DIY to purge the sins of the past. Set against the narrator’s recovery, though, is his undying anguish at having witnessed his father mentally and physically broken by racist abuse. As in The Year of the Runaways, Sahota’s many-sided treatment of the issue runs to noting the almost gleeful lack of sympathy shown by the narrator’s extended family, who feel his father should have stayed put among Derbyshire’s Asian community rather than move south.
By framing its excavation of an abused girl’s bygone agony as a form of personal therapy for a troubled young man, China Room risked becoming a cheaply redemptive act of misery tourism. But it’s a trap this excellent novel avoids. The story’s deceptively placid style renders its combustible elements all the more devastating. While the present-day narrator’s interest in Mehar’s story deepens his sense of identity, we aren’t left thinking that his efforts to put himself back together (which are only partially successful anyway) somehow compensate for his great-grandmother’s hardship – without which, it becomes clear, he would not have existed. The book ends with an uncaptioned black-and-white photo, à la W G Sebald, of a baby on the lap of an old woman, but whether the story is in any part autobiographical, Sahota doesn’t say. Either way, it’s notable that he has effectively merged two dominant forms of contemporary fiction: a candidly conversational first-person narrative and a period re-creation that spotlights the experiences of marginalised women. The splice serves to present history as a kind of originary trauma: less a nightmare from which the narrator is trying to awake than one he must experience in order to understand who he is.