I’ll admit that I started reading Marriage Material with high expectations. Journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s previous contribution to our bookshelves was The Boy With The Topknot: a book shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Biography Award. A memoir tracing his Sikh immigrant family’s past and present, and particularly certain members’ secret battle with mental illness, it was a fascinating insight into one of Britain’s less well-known communities and raised questions familiar to anyone from a minority background.
Sanghera’s first foray into fiction mines similar territory; set once again among the Sikh population of Wolverhampton, it deals with the familiar issues of loyalty and independence, of how tradition and a tight-knit community can be both blessing and a curse and, finally, the gap between first generation arrivals and their more acclimatised, confident successors.
Loosely based on Arnold Bennett’s novel The Old Wives’ Tale (but don’t worry if you don’t know it), Sanghera charts three generations of the Bains family through the prism of the highs and lows of their corner shop. We go from the years of National Front dominance to the UK riots of summer 2011, and we meet Mr Bains, a proud and successful man who nevertheless remains an outsider in Britain, his wildly different daughters Surinder and Kamaljit, and his thoroughly modern – or so he thinks – grandson Arjan.
Done right, a saga about the immigrant experience can offer an unparalleled window on to the unknown, notable recent examples might include Brick Lane, or Small Island. This novel certainly belongs in that category. Entertaining and easy to get into to, Marriage Material offers a compelling view on a hidden world, focusing on the quirks of the community without ever apologising for them. Sanghera spent time working in a corner shop as research for the novel, and it shows.
The final twist is improbable, but it doesn’t matter. Sanghera is an excellent, intelligent storyteller and his characters are deftly drawn, so that even as they make ludicrous decisions you cheer for their success. A delightful autumn read.
Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera is published by Windmill Books, and available to buy online here.