Two teenagers come of age in India’s Punjab region, one in 1929 and one in 1999.
Although 15-year-old Mehar Kaur is a newlywed, she isn’t sure who her husband is: She and her sisters-in-law, Gurleen and Harbans, spend most of their time doing chores or cloistered in a small room known as the china room, where they eat and sleep. The three brothers in the family had been married to the three women in a single ceremony, and their domineering mother, Mai, makes sure to keep Mehar, Gurleen, and Harbans in the dark. Each woman sometimes meets her husband at night in a “windowless chamber,” but their identities remain a mystery. Mehar can’t help wanting to find out the identity of her husband, and her curiosity winds up having disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, decades later, Mehar’s great-grandson travels to India from England before his first year at university to visit family and detox from his addiction to heroin. He spends the summer living in and cleaning up the house where Mehar once lived, nursing a crush on an unconventional older woman who befriends him, and hearing incomplete stories about Mehar from locals who remember her as a legendary figure more than a real person. Sahota, who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Year of the Runaways (2015), demonstrates his command through this novel’s smooth, evocative language. His expert prose never resorts to pyrotechnics but conveys a great deal through deft description: The three young brothers have “unconvincing shoulders”; Mehar’s husband speaks to her “not unkindly, but with the contingent kindness of a husband who knows he will be obeyed.” But 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.