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 ... Sahota feeds us big, difficult themes — segregation and freedom, revolution and empire — in a form that is unsweetened, fresh and nourishing. Surely this, his third novel, will propel him up the shortlists to the prizewinning status he deserves.
In the past three decades or so, with the advent of cheaper air travel and a further 'great movement of peoples,' a new literature of displacement has arisen, whose structure is often characterized by a freer and continuous movement back and forth between the country of origin and the country of destination ... Sunjeev Sahota’s new novel, China Room, is a fine example of this emerging form—a split narrative, alternating between India and Britain, controlled by the self-conscious presence of the author, who appears as himself in different guises ... engrossingly bleak ... Sahota is an enormously gifted writer ... a bold storyteller who seems to have learned as many tricks from TV as from Tolstoy, and has a jeweller’s unillusioned eye for the goods.
There is a hint of the Shakespearean bed trick about the plot that unfolds, although it is only lightly sketched, as with much else in the novel ... There is a scrupulous subtlety about that way that Sahota refuses to let his historical characters act as though they are in a historical novel ... rather than feeling confined by whatever real-life elements informed its creation, [China Room 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.
With a flair for building tension, Sahota creates a dance between power and powerlessness ... a beautiful symbolic gesture that speaks to how one generation seeks to repair the deep wounds and injustices inflicted on the preceding generations ... The scope of the novel—from 1929 to 2019—shows how much oppression holds fast. What intergenerational love does provide is a path towards self-knowledge, a catalyst to protect the sacred stories of family, and the desire to impart on the next generation new ideas, new hope, and a new path for moving forward towards freedom. China Room is a deeply captivating and necessary novel.
Sahota gives his period narrative the same effortless immediacy as his present-day one, yet his novel works by stealth, quietly beguiling the reader into an almost painful intimacy with his characters’ respective culturally circumscribed lives. I loved it.
... outstanding ... dense with intricate layers ... Sahota brilliantly plays with access to knowledge, to history ... In revealing their narratives, Sahota grants virtual omniscience to his readers, but complicity comes with appeals to engage more deeply with contextual issues that continue to plague contemporary society, including child marriage, gender inequity, multi-generational trauma, ongoing hate crimes. China Room is no effortless read, but one that promises to haunt and illuminate.
Connections are transient, spun as much from imagination as from reciprocal feeling. Both past and present love stories count down to a departure, giving China Room its momentum. Sahota’s prose is a finely modulated instrument that moves from subtle minutiae to cosmic magnitude ... Exhibiting the narrative control and psychological acuity of Rohinton Mistry and Jhumpa Lahiri, Sahota’s tale of trans-generational trauma is quietly devastating.
Mr. Sahota’s previous novel is the 2015 immigrant saga The Year of the Runaways, and beside that terrifically imagined triple-decker China Room feels somewhat quaint and rounded off, perhaps more of a pet project (it appears to spring from the author’s ancestral history). Even so, it forges telling and skillful connections between the two very different eras, showing the ways that a place—a house, a room—can store up pieces of a remarkable past and release them, generations later, when someone comes looking.
China Room is the most personal of Sahota’s novels so far, a beautifully realized blend of fiction and memoir. It ends with a photograph of the author’s great-grandmother holding him as a screaming baby. The numbered chapters that tell Mehar’s third- person story are interleaved with unnumbered sections narrated by her great-grandson. The fluid structure allows the resonances between the two completely different lives to accumulate delicately ... Sahota is a truly original novelist, his prose sparingly precise in its beauty, steeped in kindness and deep humanity.
... a gentle, if not particularly gripping read ... There is, however, a mystery to be solved, set up in the book's first line, when Mehar isn’t allowed to know which of the three brothers is her husband. Sahota explores this delicately, turning over and examining the emotional lives of all involved ... The novel is built on the classical lines of parallel narratives, where the past speaks to the present, and vice versa, but this is done with a lightness of touch ... The subtlety of the links between past and present can be China Room’s downfall at times. When this device is deployed, it has the potential to feel a bit trite, and the reader expects the two lives to intersect, at least in part. However, the two protagonists, while they speak to each other’s struggles, pass one another with very little commentary. It feels like Sahota is missing a trick, not using one character to develop the other ... very good at examining the trauma held in one family, whether it be personal or housed in a home, village, or country. Sahota seems to acknowledge that although we are not doomed to repeat the past, each subsequent generation feels a measure of the hardship that the last generation faced. This could be expressed more explicitly, but the novel is, on the whole, a well-developed story of two lives that touch one another in ways that that can never be clearly seen.
In telling both stories, Sahota shows us the legacy of Mehar’s time, how one kind of trap gave way to another, how independence led to a diaspora, how being a 'lucky foreigner,' as an uncle calls the great-grandson, comes with its own oppressions. It’s a tricky tapestry to pull off, and Sahota mostly does it beautifully ... an intimate page-turner with a deeper resonance as a tale of oppression, independence and resilience. But while Sahota’s writing is crisp and vivid and Mehar’s story is thrilling, the great-grandson’s chapters are less intriguing. His chapters serve as a modern counterbalance to his great-grandmother’s life, but they often feel like an interruption, crowding out the more urgent tale and leaving us with only a pieced-together picture of how Mehar’s bold actions affected the rest of her life. I almost want a sequel, but, again, it’s not that kind of mystery.
... tells a compelling and devastating tale ... Through short chapters and sparse, tightly wrought prose, Sahota’s novel is both easy to read and difficult to put down. Something of a hometown hero, not only in the old steel town of Sheffield, where he currently resides, but also to British Indian and Asian writers, Sahota cements his place in a vibrant literary canon alongside Salman Rushdie, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid, Hari Kunzru and others.
Mehar’s story is timeless, whence, perhaps, the choice of tense ... The novel fascinates for all the things left absent: how Mehar spent her life and how the great-grandson lives his life after return home ... Sahota, in this moving study of love, desire, and time, nonetheless conjures up interesting characters: the matriarch comes to wield so much power, a wife who hates her husband, a wife who finds herself unloved, and more.
In Mehar, Sahota has powerfully imagined a life under extreme constraint. Imprisoned in her marriage, she becomes all the more attuned to the sensory details she is allowed to take in, from the differing touches of the two brothers to the whispers of an Indian independence movement ... Mehar’s story is so strong in itself that the plotline involving her great-grandson feels almost extraneous. We don’t need it to learn Mehar’s fate, and she carries the novel well on her own. The strongest notes of romance and tragedy are there ... But moving the story 70 years into the future underscores how much has – and hasn’t – improved since Mehar was forced into her marriage.
Sunjeev Sahota's China Room is an intelligent, earnest novel, and although one of its story lines is weaker than the other, it's consistently absorbing, a sweeping dual portrait of a woman forced into an adolescent marriage and the troubled descendant she'll never meet ... Sahota, a Booker Prize finalist in 2015, is a talented prose stylist ... He relates Mehar's story in moving detail, and while the S— saga is comparatively underwhelming, his linking of the plot lines is never jarring. It's a flawed novel but often a powerful one.
The interplay between the two primary characters is, at first, challenging. Mehar’s story is so captivating that I felt briefly irritated at having to move into the secondary story of the addict. But I soon lost myself in Sahota’s compelling universe. He has particular compassion for his female characters, and I delighted in both Mehar and the modern-day character Radhika, a young doctor who befriends the addict and who insists on living on her own terms ... The final pages of China Room feel like a slow punch in the chest.
The whole novel is one tightly connected braid of liberty/imprisonment in forms that are political, physical, societal, emotional, and psychological. Sahota has created a complicated vision of the choices we make and the degrees of freedom we have to make them. His words stay with the reader long after turning the last pages.
... mesmerizing ... The narrative switches back and forth in time, from 1929 to 1999, painting remarkable portraits of women straitjacketed by society’s strictures ... Simultaneously visceral and breathless, this is one knockout of a novel.
... 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.