What’s it all about?:
If you’ve approached Bains Stores recently, you’d be forgiven for hesitating on doing so. A prominent window advert for a discontinued chocolate bar suggests the shop may have closed in 1994. The security shutters are stuck a quarter-open, adding to the general air of dilapidation. A push or kick of the door triggers something which is more grating car alarm than charming shop bell.
To Arjan Banga, returning to the Black Country after the unexpected death of his father, his family’s corner shop represents everything he has tried to leave behind – a lethargic pace of life, insular rituals and ways of thinking. But when his mother insists on keeping the shop open, he finds himself being dragged back, forced into big decisions about his imminent marriage back in London and uncovering the history of his broken family – the elopement and mixed-race marriage of his aunt Surinder, the betrayals and loyalties, loves and regrets that have played out in the shop over more than fifty years.
Taking inspiration from Arnold Bennett’s classic novel The Old Wives’ Tale, Marriage Material tells the story of three generations of a family through the prism of a Wolverhampton corner shop – itself a microcosm of the South Asian experience in the country: a symbol of independence and integration, but also of darker realities.
This is an epic tale of family, love, and politics, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, and the start of the twenty-first. Told with humour, tenderness and insight, it manages to be both a unique and urgent survey of modern Britain by one of Britain’s most promising young writers, and an ingenious re-imagining of a classic work of fiction.
What did I think?:
This promising debut novel was part of the Waterstones Eleven for 2013, please see my previous post HERE. It is a contemporary work of fiction set in Wolverhampton which follows the lives of a British Asian (specifically Sikh) family who own a corner shop and have two daughters. Kamaljit is the elder sister and possibly more traditional than her younger sister, Surinder who is desperate to carve a career for herself away from the familial duties of the shop. Their father, Mr Bains is ill and spends most of his time in bed upstairs leaving the running of the shop to his wife, daughters and some family friends. The girls mother is a devout Sikh and takes great pains to try and arrange for both of her daughters to be married off. This is terrible for Surinder, who wants to carry on with her studies at school, and feels guilty for wanting to better herself against the traditional Sikh values.
The other narrative of this story is set slightly in the future, when the daughters have married. Our narrator is Arjan, who is the son of Kamaljit and her husband Tanvir, currently managing the family shop. Arjan is desperately worried about his mother who is left behind to run the business, and he questions her coping strategies after the loss of her husband. There is also a bit of a mystery going around surrounding Surinder, who eloped with an English salesman and hasn’t been heard from since. Arjan ends up giving up his job as a graphic designer to help his mother and ends up re-evaluating his life and uncovering old family secrets threatening his own relationship with his fiancee Freya.
There is so much going on in this novel that at times it can be difficult to keep up, however it moves along at a nice pace keeping the reader interested as to what will come next. Parts of this story were very intriguing, especially the difference in Sikh castes and how individuals from lower castes are viewed and treated by other Sikhs. I also thought the issue of race was very well handled and there were certain parts that made me quite disgusted, as I believe racism of any kind is abhorrent. However, the author kept a nice balance of humour that did not make light of race issues, but put a smile on my face nevertheless.
Would I recommend it?:
Star rating (out of 5):