The increasing liberalisation of British social rules and values may be good news for women and minorities, but it must make hard work for writers of contemporary fiction. It’s a nicer world in which we can all own property and marry whom we like, but it removes much of the obvious drama from modern life and leaves all the best stories in history. Where would Romeo and Juliet have been if he could have just sent a text message? Or Pride and Prejudice if Lizzie Bennet had gone off to work in the City? Or The Old Wives’ Tale if the Baines sisters had grown up in late-20th-century Wolverhampton?
This last is the historical context in which Sathnam Sanghera has set Marriage Material, a modern “remix” of Arnold Bennett’s classic novel, based this time around a Sikh family living in the Midlands city. Constance and Sophia Baines become Kamaljit and Surinder Bains, who work in their father’s newsagent in the 1960s. Theirs is the Wolverhampton of Enoch Powell and the Wolverhampton Transport Department turban wars. The modern section of the novel is set in 2011, against the backdrop of that summer’s riots. Prodigal son Arjan is the one who uncovers family secrets when he returns to the family corner shop, following the sudden death of his father, from his creative job and his white fiancée in London.
Making Arjan the fulcrum upon which these two cultures pivot is a stroke of genius. As the only son upon whom rest the hopes of his family, his situation distils the dilemma of anyone who has ever left home for a fancy job in the big city. While his fiancée in London studies books about the Sikh religion and Punjabi culture, he watches local children “running into the shop just to shout ‘Paki’ at my mum before running out again, a depressing urban version of Knock Down Ginger”. Arjan is stuck between London and Wolverhampton, youth and responsibility, more than he is ever trapped between two “cultures”.
What emerges is an engaging comic novel which shows that however much Britain seems to change, some things, such as families, remain the same. “Families are the last people who should be entrusted with the task of finding you a spouse,” Arjan says, “given that they are incapable of appreciating that you may have changed since the age of 12.” Maybe history doesn’t have all the best stories, after all. Maybe some of them are set in old-fashioned corner shops in Wolverhampton.