Having read all the books I’d undertaken to read and review this month (amazingly!), one ongoing to review on 1 June, I have been able to pick a book from the physical TBR and one from my June NetGalley reads to finish the month with. The oldest book on the TBR was this one, bought with Christmas charity shop “voucher” my lovely friend Sian gave me, along with two more books on the shelf.

Sathnam Sanghera – “Marriage Material”

(04 February 2020 – Oxfam Books)

He could have been anyone. Or no one. And that’s the thing, if you’re Asian and happen to run a shop, you are anyone. Or no one. There are few more stereotypical things you can do as an Asian man, few more profound ways of wiping out your character and individuality, short of becoming a doctor, that is. Or fixing computers for a living. Or writing a book about arranged marriages. (p. 3)

This is not a book about arranged marriages. In fact, everyone central to the book in the two younger generations we read about refuses to entertain such things; and that is where their stories come from.

We have a dual-narrative form here with alternating chapters looking at two daughters of a Punjabi Sikh shopkeeper in the 1960s, taking two different routes in life (homekeeping / education) through choice and ending up in two very different places. Then we have Arjan, son of a Punjabi Sikh shopkeeper, returning home to help his ailing mum run the shop in modern times, leaving his White fiancée, Freya, in London in their old lifestyle. To add to the technical challenges, Sanghera chooses to name all his chapter headings after magazines stocked by the shop, and bases the plot on “The Old Wives’ Tale” – he does it all with aplomb.

The plot centres around the two daughters and their different plots and, in Arjan’s time, a mysterious missing aunt who may be needed now, but where can he find her? There’s also the long-running plot of the rivalry/friendship between this family and the Dhandas, both shopkeepers, with different circumstances (mainly, the Dhandas own their own land and can expand, the Bains/Bangas are in a leasehold terraced property and circumscribed by that; there’s a great deal of information about the rise and change of corner shops and their rivals which will interest anyone who’s into social or retail history woven into the novel), who have a bizarre no-competition rule which drives them apart and ultimately fuels the spiralling and violent ending (don’t worry: there is an epilogue).

Arjan has grown up friends with Ranjit Dhanda, who has however become a sort of stereotype of a certain kind of man, pushed satirically to the limits with his drug use, Steven Seagal obsession and collection of weapons. But he’s not actually dangerous, is he … We watch as Arjan gets used to life on the back streets of Wolverhampton, starting to find himself becoming racist and separatist as he’s encouraged by both Ranjit and the White people who besiege the shop. Can he find his way back to the liberal London graphic designer he used to be, or will be become more entrenched?

It’s a good read, with lots to think about and so much detail about life in Wolverhampton in both timelines, enhanced by real bits from newspapers. It does get a bit violent at times, and the final scenes were a bit much for me, but not gratuitous as people show their true natures.