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,