China Room explores questions of patriarchy, honour and shame. Mehar lives with her two sisters-in-law in an outhouse of their mother-in-law’s home — the china room of the title — and they spend their days doing chores. She knows that if the affair is found out she will be ritually shamed. Fast-forwarding to the Nineties, the scurrilous gossip that surrounds Radhika suggests little has changed in the intervening decades. “A scandal, that was all these people wanted, some easy story that they could hook around a person’s neck, and lynch them with.”
Sahota has said that China Room has its seed in his own family history, and a photograph at the end of the book, of an elderly woman cradling a baby, the surroundings suggestive of a few decades ago rather than a century, confirms an element of documentary about the novel. But rather than feeling confined by whatever real-life elements informed its creation, it exists in a far more indeterminate, diffuse dimension, at times taking on an almost fairytale quality. In his three novels, Sahota has demonstrated an ambitious need to adapt the specific and concrete to something less easy to pin down, complete with all the gaps and ruptures that life provides and art makes, even for a moment, tangible
Any old hack could produce a moving tale about his oppressed ancestors and the ennui of being a second-generation immigrant. Very few writers can do so with the poise, restraint and deep intelligence of Sahota. It is tempting to say that this maths graduate and former insurance office worker is a “natural writer” but that would undermine the careful research and refinement evident in his beautiful writing. Every detail, from the way villagers made tea in the 1920s to the “beautiful grotty” lake or the morning “bright as parrots” that inspire his narrator is perfectly crafted and seriously considered.