CHINA ROOM by Sunjeev Sahota (Viking, 256 pp., $27)
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 dual portrait of a woman forced into an adolescent marriage and the troubled descendant she'll never meet.
The book's main thread — set in 1929, in an India increasingly resistant to British rule — focuses on an unwillingly engaged 15-year-old. Mehar's impoverished parents have agreed that she'll marry the son of a domineering, relatively wealthy widow named Mai. Adding insult to matrimony, Mehar hasn't met her husband-to-be. The wedding day won't provide any clarity.
Her future mother-in-law has arranged for Mehar and two women — Gurleen and Harbans — to wed her three sons in a single ceremony. Mai's interpretation of the family's Sikh faith requires that the brides be "shrouded from head to foot in … gown[s] and gold drapes." The men wear "curtain[s] of white marigolds," obscuring their faces. Eager to set a dictatorial tone, Mai won't tell the brides who's marrying whom.
In the weeks after the ceremony, Mai sows confusion by ordering the young wives to spend most of their hours in the family's cramped "china room," so "named for the old willow-pattern plates" on the shelves. But gutsy Mehar won't "remain dutiful, veiled and silent." She persuades her sisters-in-law to play hopscotch. She comically impersonates Mai.
Mehar eventually finds love — with Gurleen's husband — and the lovers hatch a dramatic escape plan.
The Mehar plot is intertwined with a slighter tale. Seventy years later, her great-grandson flees his home in England and isolates himself in Mehar's now-abandoned house. The 18-year-old is trying to kick a heroin habit when he falls for an older woman. Radhika is a busy doctor working who somewhat implausibly spends countless hours doting on the spoiled teen.
Sahota is a talented prose stylist. His description of the "champagne brightness" of daybreak in India — "The morning mist was dove-grey and light and lifting away from the fields" — is among many gorgeously crafted passages.
Yes, it's a flawed novel but often a powerful one.
Sunjeev Sahota's "China Room" features an excellent story of an Indian woman's arranged marriage and a less successful plot about her heroin-addicted great-grandson.