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. 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. 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.
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.
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.