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China Room
Cover of China Room
China Room
A Novel
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2021 BOOKER PRIZE
FINALIST FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION'S CARNEGIE MEDAL

“Sunjeev Sahota's new novel follows characters across generations and continents...Heart-wrenching.” Entertainment Weekly

“An intimate page-turner with a deeper resonance as a tale of oppression, independence and resilience.” San Francisco Chronicle

A transfixing, "powerfully imaged" (USA Today) 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.
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2021 BOOKER PRIZE
FINALIST FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION'S CARNEGIE MEDAL

“Sunjeev Sahota's new novel follows characters across generations and continents...Heart-wrenching.” Entertainment Weekly

“An intimate page-turner with a deeper resonance as a tale of oppression, independence and resilience.” San Francisco Chronicle

A transfixing, "powerfully imaged" (USA Today) 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.
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    1

     

    Mehar is not so obedient a fifteen-year-old that she won't try to uncover which of the three brothers is her husband. Already, the morning after the wedding, and despite nervous, trembling hands, she combines varying amounts of lemon, garlic and spice in their side plates of sliced onions, and then attempts to detect the particular odour on the man who visits later that same night, invisible to her in the dark. It proves inconclusive, the strongest smell by far her fear, so she tries again after overhearing one of the trio complaining about the calluses on his hands. Her concentration is fierce when her husband's palm next strokes her naked arm, but then, too, she isn't certain. Maybe all male hands feel so rough, so clumsily eager and dry.

     

    It is 1929, summer is erupting, and the brothers do not address her in one another's presence, indeed they barely speak to her at all, and she, it goes without saying, is expected to remain dutiful, veiled and silent, like the other new brides. Spying from her window, she sees only the brothers' likeness: close in age, they share the same narrow build, with unconvincing shoulders and grave eyes; serious faces that carry no slack, features that follow the same rules. The three are evenly bearded, the hair trimmed short and tight, and all day they wear loose turbans cut from the same saffron wrap. Most hours the brothers will be out working the fields, playing, drinking, while she weaves and cooks and shovels and milks, until those evenings when Mai, their mother, says to her, raising a tea-glass to grim lips:

     

    'Not the china room tonight.'

     

    This is the third time Mehar must finish washing the pewter pots at the courtyard water pump and, rather than join the women, take herself to the windowless chamber at the back of the farm. On the bed, she holds her knees close, seeing no point in lying down straight away. Five days married. Five nights since she'd first lain waiting in the pitch black, shuddering from arms to toes, hoping he wouldn't come to her and praying that there might be blood. The day before the wedding, Mehar's mother had folded a tiny blade into her daughter's hand. Cut your thumb, to be sure. Mehar hadn't done that, hadn't needed to, and Mai had been outside afterwards, waiting for the sheets. Her husband had said nothing to Mehar on that occasion, and little more on the next. Will he say more today, she wonders?

     

    The tallow stick on its stony ledge has blown down to its crater and in the obliterating dazzle of the darkness she imagines she is underwater, in some submerged world of sea-goats and monsters. From across the courtyard she hears the distant protesting rasps of a charpoy and the scuffle of leather slippers being toed on. Her stomach does a small anticipatory flip, and she lies down as the door opens and he moves to sit at her side. She dares a sidelong glance at what must surely be his naked back, though it is impossible to make even a distinction between his hair and his cotton wrap, which she can hear him loosening. When she senses him unknotting the langot at his waist she averts her gaze to the black pool of the ceiling and waits.

     

    'Undress,' he says, not unkindly, but with the contingent kindness of a husband who knows he will be obeyed. She tries to trap his voice inside her head, to parse its deep grain, its surprising hoarseness. Was he the one who'd called for more daal, who'd had her hurrying out to them earlier that day? She gathers the hem of her tunic up around her hips and unties her drawstring. She feels a rush of air against her calves as he slides off her salwar in a single swift motion,...

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 3, 2021
    Sahota’s engaging latest (after The Year of the Runaways) follows a teenage bride in rural Punjab during the British Raj. Mehar Kaur was five years old when she was promised to one of three brothers. In 1929, Mehar, now 15, is married along with two other women to the three, but Mehar still does not know which is her husband. The women live and sleep in the china room, and are alone with their husbands only on those nights when they meet in an unlit room for sex. Mehar mistakenly comes to believe that Suraj, the youngest, is her husband, leading her to drop her veil and sleep with him one afternoon. Suraj realizes what happened but doesn’t want to give her up, and Mehar falls in love with him, leading to heartbreaking consequences. Mehar is seen and treated as property, yet Sahota manages to give her the illusion of agency, providing an empathetic look at how she would prefer the world to be. Woven within Mehar’s affecting narrative is the less-developed story of her great-grandson, an unnamed man who narrates in 2019, recalling the summer of 1999, when he was 18 and left England for Punjab to battle his heroin addiction. Though the various parts are uneven, it’s well worth the time. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit Assoc.

  • Kirkus

    May 15, 2021
    Two teenagers come of age in India's Punjab region, one in 1929 and one in 1999. Although 15-year-old Mehar Kaur is a newlywed, she isn't sure who her husband is: She and her sisters-in-law, Gurleen and Harbans, spend most of their time doing chores or cloistered in a small room known as the china room, where they eat and sleep. The three brothers in the family had been married to the three women in a single ceremony, and their domineering mother, Mai, makes sure to keep Mehar, Gurleen, and Harbans in the dark. Each woman sometimes meets her husband at night in a "windowless chamber," but their identities remain a mystery. Mehar can't help wanting to find out the identity of her husband, and her curiosity winds up having disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, decades later, Mehar's great-grandson travels to India from England before his first year at university to visit family and detox from his addiction to heroin. He spends the summer living in and cleaning up the house where Mehar once lived, nursing a crush on an unconventional older woman who befriends him, and hearing incomplete stories about Mehar from locals who remember her as a legendary figure more than a real person. Sahota, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Year of the Runaways (2015), demonstrates his command through this novel's smooth, evocative language. His expert prose never resorts to pyrotechnics but conveys a great deal through deft description: The three young brothers have "unconvincing shoulders"; Mehar's husband speaks to her "not unkindly, but with the contingent kindness of a husband who knows he will be obeyed." But the novel's characters and plots remain frustratingly underdeveloped. By including both storylines in this short novel, Sahota limits his ability to deeply explore either, and the result feels like a missed opportunity. A beautifully written but narratively limited family saga.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    June 1, 2021
    In the village of Sunra in Punjab, India, legend has it that the ""china room,"" in which women work sequestered from men, is blighted. After all, this is where a young bride, who had seduced her brother-in-law, spent most of her days. Sahota (The Year of the Runaways, 2016) pegs his mesmerizing novel on this tale. His outcast bride is Mehar Kaur. In a single ceremony, she and two other teenager girls are married to three brothers. Mai, the strong-willed matriarch, keeps the girls under strict supervision, but Mehar tries to forge a way out. Fast-forward many generations. Mehar's great-grandson from England visits the family farm in the hope of shaking a drug addiction. Haunted by the racism his family faces, he is visited by a local doctor friend, Radhika Chaturvedi. The narrative switches back and forth in time, from 1929 to 1999, painting remarkable portraits of women straitjacketed by society's strictures. Each woman uses every weapon at her disposal, including her sexuality, to quietly exercise her free will, sometimes at steep costs. Mehar wonders if the essence of being a man in the world is "not simply desiring a thing, but being able to voice that desire out loud." Simultaneously visceral and breathless, this is one knockout of a novel.

    COPYRIGHT(2021) Booklist, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    July 23, 2021

    In a small Punjab village in 1929, three young women are married to three brothers in a group ceremony. The women do not know which of the brothers is their husband; they spend their days working in a small "china room" in the family's estate and are veiled during any encounters with the men. The youngest, 15-year-old Mehar, is also the most curious. She determines that handsome Suraj, the middle brother, must be her husband. By the time Mehar learns that he is not, they are in a passionate relationship that threatens to destroy their lives if they are discovered. Seventy years later, the British-born son of an Indian immigrant arrives at his uncle's home in the same village, hoping to kick his heroin addiction. He decamps to an abandoned house, where he's drawn to a mysterious prison-like room where his great-grandmother was sequestered as a young woman. As he and two friends restore the dilapidated house, his thoughts about identity, family, and love are a source of healing. VERDICT In descriptive but never flowery prose, Sahota (The Year of the Runaways) intersects the two stories in clever and unexpected ways, reminding readers how they are connected to those who came before. Readers of literary historical fiction will enjoy this powerful, evocative novel.--Nanette Donohue, Champaign P.L., IL

    Copyright 2021 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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Sunjeev Sahota
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