Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Marriage Material - Satnam Sanghera

An excellent book about cultural conflicts and family secrets in a British Asian family.

With characters shoplifted from Arnolod Bennet's Old wives tale, (Sanghera's own words) Marriage Material is a refreshing take on what it is like to be a British Asian, the confusion of juggling between traditional values and western thought.

My first thoughts were, a lot has been written about it, what else is new. But Sanghera has very cleverly set the story in a corner shop, how shopkeepers define the British perception of the Asians and has made it topical by referring to the 2011 riots which I thought was very clever and added a new dimension to the plot.

The Gist:

Arjan Banga, a graphic designer, comes back home after his father's death to look after his mother and their family shop. The first few chapters are more like an introduction to Banga and his family, his childhood and a general view of Asians in general. He also learns of his "dead" aunt who broke away from tradition to marry outside community and Arjan decides to seek her out to resolve family issues.

At another level, there is a parallel narrative, about two girls during the Enoch Powell era, when first generation immigrants were viewed with scepticism and the immigrants were apprehensive about letting go of their values in pursuit of a new future in a foreign land. Being raised in this atmosphere, the girls make their choices which leads to their separation. Decades later, they meet again as two divergent personalities and credit to Sanghera for making it believable and endearing to the reader.At one point both narratives blend in to emerge as one which then takes it to the logical conclusion.

What works:

  • The characters are very well defined. Whether it was the confused Arjan Banga, his traditional mother kamaljit or his aunt, Surinder Baines or Sue Baines, the personalities are very well etched out. It is really easy to identify with the characters and one can relate to their choices and decisions.
  • The self deprecatory wit and the humour that laces the novel. My particular favourite is the one where Arjan Banga talks about the newspaper report on his father's suspicious death. "The widow of a tragic shopkeeper who recently died ......." had me in splits!
  • The plot turns and bends very well, taking the reader by surprise. A definite plus.
  • The writing is fresh and though the theme is a oft trodden one by many Asian writers, Sanghera infuses it with a interesting perspective especially through the 2011 riots.
 What doesn't:

  • The story takes a while to pan out and one has to endeavour to stick to it. The initial introduction reads like a documentary on Asian shopkeepers in general. It meanders a bit but then once the story gets started, the pace gets better.

In a nutshell, a new voice in Asian writing and one that holds attention. This is a great book about the dual identity of being a British Asian. If nothing, it is a well written novel with many laugh out aloud moments. Highly recommended.

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