Book review: Marriage Material, By Sathnam Sanghera

A playful novel that 'shoplifts' from Bennett's fiction to give us something completely new

Marriage Material is the story of three generations of a Punjabi Sikh family, set against the backdrop of their Wolverhampton corner shop. Mr Bains arrives in England from the West Punjab in the 1960s with just a shilling in his pocket, from which he builds a thriving business, eventually making enough money to send to India for his wife and two daughters, Kamaljit and Surinder, to join him.

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Following his death, the shop is taken over by Kamaljit and her husband Tanvir, before history repeats itself when she outlives him, forcing their only son, 35-year-old graphic designer Arjan, to return home to help her. The setting flits between the 1960s and the present day, but it is through Arjan's eyes that we see the story of his family's history unfold. Following his father's death he experiences an identity crisis that throws his life into disarray – he is torn between the cosmopolitan London life he's built with his white fiancée Freya, and a sudden urge to maintain a link to his family and culture. Discovering that his mother's sister, the aunt he had always been told was dead, is actually still alive, he sets out to find her.

Sathnam Sanghera's entertaining story is a "remix" of Arnold Bennett's classic novel The Old Wives' Tale (the story of a Staffordshire family's draper's shop) from which he "shoplifted characters and elements of the plot" – just one of the many example of the playful wit that infuses the novel. Each of the chapters, for example, is named after an appropriately titled magazine or newspaper, from Hairdressers' Journal, through Bunty and Indian Observer, to Black Country Bugle.

But behind the humour and the (albeit sometimes a little overly sensational) plot twists, is an important novel that explores an often overlooked part of this country's history. Having cut his story-telling teeth with his autobiographical first book, The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir Of Love, Secrets And Lies in Wolverhampton, his account of discovering that his father had been secretly suffering from paranoid schizophrenia for many years, in Marriage Material Sanghera sets family secrets up against a broader political context, tracing the links between the Conservative MP Enoch Powell's 1968 "rivers of blood" speech, made at a time when Wolverhampton was "enjoying five minutes of fame as Britain's equivalent of Harlem", and the more recent discussions of race that resurfaced around the 2011 riots.

That the story of the Victorian mercantile class told in Bennett's novel is so easily transposed onto the community Sanghera grew up in nearly a century later is absolutely fascinating, and by recognizing and exploiting this with excellent effect, he examines the nationwide story of British immigration through the prism of the Punjabi Sikh experience.

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