Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

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Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A lively reworking of Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives Tale which more than does justice to the original. It's an insightful look at the life of an Asian shopkeeper and a darned good read to boot. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: September 2013
Publisher: William Heinemann
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0434021901

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On the morning after his father's funeral Arjan Banga was surprised to see his mother opening up the family shop. She was in her sixties, recovering from cancer and besides, Bains Stores wasn't exactly thriving. You could even be forgiven for wondering if it was open, with the advert for a bar of chocolate discontinued in 1994 having pride of place in the window and the security shutter stuck at a quarter open. Much as he might wish otherwise Arjan has no choice but to stay in Wolverhampton to help his mother, leaving his job as a graphic designer and his girlfriend, Freya, in limbo. They were supposed to be getting married in December, but that looked increasingly unlikely.

It's a lively and entertaining reworking of Arnold Bennet's The Old Wives' Tale, staying true to the spirit of the original if not slavishly to the characters and settings. The daughters who work in the corner shop are Kamaljit - the older and less prepossessing - and Surinder, intelligent, beautiful and perhaps just a little wayward. Their father believes that he still runs the shop but he's confined to bed and it's their mother with a little help from the locals who keeps everything going. She's a traditionalist though, with little command of the English language and her main aim is to see both daughters married off.

There's always a danger with stories which are based on classics that they'll be nothing more than a pale imitation, that the reader will know full well what's going to happen next, but despite being well-acquainted with The Old Wives' Tale I found Marriage Material rivetting. Part of the reason for this is the writing - it bounces off the page and demands your attention. When Arjan returns to Wolverhampton he does so as an insider who has moved on: he looks at his family, the neighbourhood and the Sikh religion with a wry detachment, seeing the ridiculous aspects of the rituals and traditions without ever losing his affection for the people. I laughed - and there were occasions when it would have been all too easy to cry.

There's a neat contrast with the way that Freya's parents view Arjan. They want to do the right thing for their daughter's sake and you can forgive the wrong clothes at a funeral and pointing their feet at the Holy Book. If you don't know, you don't know - but I laughed out loud when Freya's father called him Tarzan. That aside the prose is not just funny, it's also subtle. It reaches back to Sathnam Sanghera's background, so you'd expect the detail to be spot on but there's a very sharp, perceptive look at what it's like to be an Asian shopkeeper.

The story reaches effortlessly over several generations. I loved every moment of it. Marriage Material is shortlisted for the 2013 Costa First Novel Award and my fingers are very tightly crossed - this just might be my book of the year. From the same list we've also enjoyed Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy.

Buy Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera at Amazon.com.



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Peter said:

A very special book - funny and thought provoking