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Customer Review

on October 1, 2013
SATHNAM Sanghera, author of The Boy With The Top-Knot, has just become The Man With The Top-Notch Novel Under His Belt.

For his debut novel, Marriage Material, is an unputdownable and thoroughly rewarding read - and not just because it's the most accurate and interesting evocation of cornershop life since the TV sitcom Open All Hours.

Like most journalists who write novels, Sathnam majors on authenticity and credibility; although it's a work of fiction, everything in it feels like it did happen, or could have happened, and he never resorts to coincidence but supplies us instead with first-rate realism.

In some ways, the subject matter is bleak - cultural in-fighting, control-freak families, and racism - but Sathnam presents it to us so engagingly, so engrossingly, that we can't stop turning the pages.

It's ostensibly a tale about a Sikh family running a cornershop in Wolverhampton, set partly in the present and partly in the Sixties and Seventies when Enoch Powell's Rivers Of Blood speech set the cat among the pigeons in a country that was largely, to our retrospective shame and embarrassment, deeply and openly racist.

The Sikh culture doesn't come out of it terribly well, but neither does the dominant and intolerant white culture of the time.

And should anyone misguidedly use this book (or The Boy With The Topknot: A Memoir Of Love, Secrets And Lies In Wolverhampton by Sanghera, Sathnam (2009)) as a stick to beat the Sikh culture with, they might be well advised to look in the mirror and examine their own culture's shortcomings first.

Take arranged marriages and obsession with money, for instance. Sikhs and other British Indians may be criticised by some on both counts, but if you took arranged marriages and enquiries about how many pounds a year a potential suitor makes out of Jane Austen's novels, she'd have had precious little left to write about for her mostly white English audience of the time.

And before anyone scoffs at the characters in Sathnam's novel for hating each other and worse because they're from different castes, take a look at the white British bigots in Northern Ireland who behave exactly the same in the 21st Century and still have to live either side of so-called Peace Walls to stop them beating the Hell out of each other in the name of the same forgiveness-preaching God that they both claim to believe in.

Although Sathnam doesn't quote it in this novel, I couldn't help thinking of Gandhi's reaction when he was asked what he thought of English civilisation.

"It would be a very good idea," he said.

That aside, the novel is a lid-lifter on what it was like - and is like - to be a British Sikh. In much the same way that Goodness, Gracious Me! transformed the image of British Asians and made national treasures of Meera Syal, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia, this novel and Top-Knot are seminal works that will change anyone who reads them.

But that risks making the novel sound like it belongs on the Worthy But Dull shelf. It's anything but!

Sanghera's characters are lovable and loathable, engaging and infuriating, and, most importantly, we can't help caring about them.

The central character deserves a sequel or two, just as David Nobbs did with Henry Pratt, and Sathnam must surely have enough material to go the distance.

This novel is beautifully and intelligently written, witty and thought-provoking, and I can't wait to see what Sathnam does for an encore.
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