If You Don't Know Me by Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton by Sathnam Sanghera
|If You Don't Know Me by Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton by Sathnam Sanghera|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: The memoirs of a media player, with his humbler Wolverhampton background, his intent to break from any predestined relationship path, and his experiences with the illness that is the family's skeleton in the closet.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Maybe|
|Pages: 336||Date: March 2008|
The irony in the title is delivered in several directions by this autobiography. First, our narrator Sathnam has decided with the evidence of his own tastes, and six failed short-term relationships, that he needs to tell his mother that he is just not interested in being forced into an arranged marriage, and would much prefer to try and find the white girl that suits him better. Of course, he will have to find someone to exactly reproduce his thoughts in written Punjabi so the message will get across with no doubts.
Before this can be done, however, he has a surprise to resolve, when finding among his parent's excess baggage as they ready for a trip back to the mother country, schizophrenia medication for his father. Sathnam's dad has survived with what to the entire family is a mysterious illness, and while the close family spirit, and the entire community they live in in Wolverhampton has managed to help him in this, his illiteracy has not helped anyone define any actual fault with anything.
Also there is the irony in someone with an unwillingness to look back into the family history being forced to define his own environment growing up. Witness in this regard the occasion when he is told by his new teacher to find a surname easier for taking the register with than Singh. So why do this? Well, to the extent that his older sister also has schizophrenia, and his life as writ will try and reveal the people behind the illness, the relatives that were kin before their diagnosis and should remain so (and not just devolve to 'ill people') afterwards.
As to whether we would be interested in much of what goes on inside is a very personal decision. I can think of fewer genres so divisive than the issue-based memoir, regarding either poverty or illness. And while the book is good at telling us how he found out about schizophrenia (both what it is and isn't, and what books on it to read and what not) the book will not be concentrating on the subject precisely enough for those with that as their prime interest.
Elsewhere though there is some fun to be had in gently recognising the truth in every British Asian stereotype – the mother who reaches I don't know, any age, and professes herself too old to learn English, the inordinate amount of fresh home curry and chapatti cooking that goes on, the universality of bickering siblings, here perhaps given fresh stances due to the narrator's being unique in the family in wearing his hair as all Sikh males should, uncut.
There is also though the sense that even with the gently forming picture of episodes, feelings, cultural references and more that bring the family life to our mind's eye, there is a shortfall that is getting in the way. This might be borne out by the career Sathnam has in London, that of being an interviewing journalist – the irony of the title part 4, as he is used to celebrities and businessmen trained to reveal nothing while appearing to reveal everything. However that it is only when concerning Sathnam himself – there must be more to the anecdote of the 2,000 word character assassinating email received after just one blind date than meets our eyes. Elsewhere the research he does with relatives teaches us intimately what schizophrenia first meant to the young bride his mother once was.
Forgive me for not being well-read in the micro-genre of Asian memoirs, and misery memoirs as he calls them himself. There are times when I readily admit that truth is stranger than fiction, but still tend to try not to read self-reflective stories. I'm left thinking the book is in a bit of a niche market (and what will sell it more convincingly, the Simply Red title, the Sikh boy portrayed on the cover or the prominent use of the word Wolverhampton?), and as such will have to go great guns to become a big seller. I didn't object to passing time with the extended family herein, and learning what there was to be had from the educational illness parts, but nor was there the sense I would ultimately look for – that of the story that just had to be told, and told by just the one person most able to.
This is not an example of that, but is a fair enough look at important matters that does spread beyond the Singh families, the Sikh communities, and the Black Country. You're often reminded that with his father barely able to read, and his mother a non-English speaker, his parents will not be reading this book. I still would like to think that the more pertinent audience – those in a situation similar to the one within – and the more experimental memoir readers, should make the book a success for Viking, who should be thanked for sending a copy to the Bookbag.
For a fictional look at the problems of schizophrenia we can recommend Plea of Insanity by Jilliane Hoffman. For another memoir about growing up in an Asian community in the UK you might enjoy Greetings From Bury Park by Sarfraz Manzoor.
If You Don't Know Me by Now: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton by Sathnam Sanghera is in the Costa Book Awards 2008.
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