After reading Sunjeev Sahota‘s new minimalistic book, China Room, visions of the story and his writing linger and invite revisiting. Not having read his two previous novels—including The Year of the Runaways, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize—I’m eager to compare them to this engulfing tale built of economical language filled with imagery, pain, and possibilities.
In 1929, while freedom fighters scour the country for new recruits, fifteen-year-old Mehar is married, one of three brides to three brothers. She, not her family, or the other brides know which of the brothers is whose husband. The girls, mostly sequestered, live and work in the “china room,” a small, suffocating place with their mother-in-law’s unused dowry on display. Mehar thinks she’ll be clever when her husband comes to her for sex in a different small, pitch-dark chamber. During their allowed times together as authorized by the groom’s mother, Mehar listens to the few but gentle words he speaks and maps the feel of his hands.
One day, after her husband tells her that pearls under her pillow will help her become pregnant, she fails to see when he gives the pearls to his youngest brother to present to their mother. She does see, from a distance, the youngest brother holding the pearls and believes him to be her husband. A dangerous scenario follows, and eventually, her curiosity and assumption lead to grave consequences.
Alternately, it’s 2019. A young man whose name we only know as S- reminisces about 20 years earlier when he seeks to escape the ever-present racism in his northern England town and the demons of his addiction. On his family’s near-crumbling farm in rural Punjab, he wonders about the barred windows on the property.
Living alone on the farm, he self-detoxes, the night stars acting as his silent witnesses. With various new acquaintances, he pours his waking energy into cleaning and painting the farm’s buildings and regains his self-esteem. He comes to learn about his great-grandmother, Mehar Kaur, and her fate through stories told by those who remembered her, knew of her, or had heard the legends about her.
I confess I felt contempt as I read, but not for the author whose writing was simple on its face and complex on a deeper level. Was it contempt for the mother-in-law who “hired” female children as nothing more than workhorses and broodmares? For the men who accepted such treatment of their young wives? The bullies who terrorized S-‘s family? In the end, it was angry grief I felt for Mehar, her sister-brides, and later, for S-.
Each of the characters in the story is imprisoned by someone or something. Sahota never promises a happy ending despite similes and metaphors so substantial you can touch them. Nevertheless, Mehar’s great-grandson returning 70 years after and telling his story 20 years later offers a spark of wonder that holds great promise for all that carefully remains untold.
Both Mehar and her great-grandson live and breathe the same small truths of their lives, tormented, and trapped until each decides to do something to foment change. How that change endures is unspoken. In some measure inspired by Sahota’s own family, China Room is a heartbreakingly quiet, sensitive, and beautifully written story of what one life means in the present and how it impacts other lives generations into the future.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in both Carolinas and is a long-time contributor to India Currents, a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine/American Library Association, and a member of WCPE-FM The Classical Station’s Music Education Fund committee.