I picked up Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera on a bit of a whim. I hadn’t heard anything about it, and had not read (or even heard of) Sanghera’s earlier works. Further research revealed that Sanghera is an accomplished journalist and writer in the UK. His journalistic background comes through in the crafting of the novel, which is full of startling news items about racial relations in the Midlands of England in the 1970s, 1980s and beyond. As a Canadian, I often forget or overlook the turbulence in England during that period.
From the first sentence I read I knew that I was going to like Marriage Material. Sanghera’s writing is both breathtaking and revealing. It effortlessly transport the reader to a different time and place. Each of his characters have a distinctive way of speaking which reveals as much about them as any actions they may take. There are native Punjabi speakers struggling to grasp the Queen’s English, young aping American Hip Hop artists and blooming political agitators spouting words meant to inflame. One character in particular is amusing in his ability to speak Punjabi to his elders, British Hip Hop slang to his friends and in one or two key scenes, plain old English.
Marriage Material tells two parallel stories: one of two Punjabi sisters growing up in Wolverhampton in the 1970s; the second of the son of one of the two sisters returning to Wolverhampton after his father’s death. The interplay of the two story lines illustrates how little things have changed for immigrants and minorities in the UK. As a relative newcomer to the UK I have found the class and immigrant issues to be viewed in a much different way than in Canada. Marriage Material did an enormous amount to educate me further upon these issues. In particular, Sanghera introduced me to the infamous British Parliamentarian Enoch Powell and his inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech on immigration.
Who would like this book? I found Marriage Material to be a much weightier book than the cover or title suggests. It is not chick lit with an ethnic element! I would make favorable comparisons to White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Brick Lane by Monica Ali – all deal with complex issues and challenging themes. It is a book that will make the reader think and hopefully stimulate discussion. It has also made me re-evaluate how I view the owners of small shops in my neighborhood. Their lives and struggles are far more complex than I had previously considered.