Sunday, August 4, 2013


Title: Marriage Material
Author: Sathnam Sanghera
Publisher: William Heinemann
Publication Date: September 28, 2013
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Guest Reviewer: Margitte
Source: Received for Review
Margitte’s smiley rating: 5/5


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 reimagining of a classic work of fiction.


Sixty-two year old Mr. Bains, and his , more or less forty-five year old wife, Mrs. Bains ran a shop in Victoria Road in Wolverhampton where they raised their two daughters, Kamaljit, the oldest, and Surinder, the younger more intelligent of the two sisters. England was not a friendly place for immigrants from their former colonies and succeeding in the new country took determination and skill on many levels. 

The Sikh religious group were left out when India was partitioned into Pakistan for the Muslim and India for the rest of the people. It led to many of them feeling robbed of their rights and moving to England in the hope of establishing their own homeland, with their caste system and culture intact. However, within the group there was social differences since many of the lower casts members, like Tanvir Banja, a Chanmar boy, immigrated to England to free themselves of this class discrimination, although Tanvir would be employed by Mr. Bains in Bains Stores as a servant again. But events would lead to Tanvir managing to get married to Kamaljit of a higher caste, which would free him at last to become the man he always wanted to be.

The story consists of two parallel narratives being intertwined throughout the book, both starting with the death of the male heads of their households - first Mr. Bains, and then Tanvir Banja, his son-in-law. The tales circle around the women left behind, especially the outcome of the circumstances in which the two girls would have to face hostilities and challenges within their Sikh communities as well as from their hostile white English neighbors in town. At one point the shop doors did not have 'tingling bells' but grating alarms.

At first it was extremely confusing to figure this out since both narratives evolve around the same characters and the same shop, but forty years apart. Tanvir and Kamaljit had a son, Arjan(the narrator of the second tale), who were brought up in the liberal views of his father, Tanvir, and who would clash with the principles and fundamentalist traditions of Dhanda and his son Ranjit. Dhanda was Mr. Bains's closest friend, who, with the latter's help, set up shop with the agreement that they would never become competition for one another. Dhanda was a political activist fighting for the rights of the Indian immigrants to wear their traditional head gear, for children being taught their homeland languages, for Indian cultural events to be allowed in British schools. But he was also a thrifty businessman becoming quite wealthy, while Mr. Bains, and afterwards Tanvir, his son-in-law, would not benefit from the agreement at all.

The reader is never sure what will happen next, and will sit back in awe at the suprising ending.

This is a remarkable tale, very well-written, bathed in the social-, political challenges, cultural debates, interracial relationships, love, cruelty and often satire of this beautiful family. 

If you have enjoyed Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" you will absolutely love this book as well. I recommend it with an open mind and heart. 

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