Sathnam Sanghera, in his family memoir The Boy with the Topknot, heaped much largely affectionate contempt and ridicule on his home town (now a city) Wolverhampton, with its shabby factories and shimmering new gurdwaras — ‘Wolverhampton, the arse of the Black Country, in itself the bumcrack of the West Midlands, in itself the backside of Britain’.
In Marriage Material he returns to the same rich and little explored multicultural terrain, in a novel that ingeniously ‘shoplifts’ (his word) characters and elements of plot from Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale. His tale is also the tale of two sisters, one a loyal stay-at-home and one an ambitious runaway who makes off with a travelling salesman, and Bennett readers will enjoy spotting parallels as they follow the fates of Kamaljit Bains (Constance) and Surinder Bains (Sophia)— allusions which extend as far as Surinder’s horrid pampered little dog, here not a French poodle but a King Charles spaniel called Jessie, a creature which illustrates all too well why proper Sikh Punjabi families don’t really go for pets.
The girls, like the Baines daughters of Burslem, are brought up over the shop, and struggle against convention, gossip, superstition, the caste system and family expectation. As in the parent novel, we observe through them the social changes which affect their community from the 1960s to the present day, for we are brought brutally up to date by the unfolding plot — we move from Enoch Powell and an era of Sikh civic protest and participation (represented by the revolt against the Wolverhampton Transport Committee’s turban ban) to a new kind of backlash racism engendered by the sex crimes committed against vulnerable teenage girls in northern cities by Asian men.
This dangerous material is handled with a darkly comic lightness of touch, and an impassively detached ironic tone that may owe something to Bennett — like Bennett, Sanghera makes good use of local newspaper cuttings, letters to the editor, and contemporary fashion magazine material, which gives an unobtrusively authentic period flavour to each passing phase. This book is so well researched you hardly notice the work that’s gone into it.
Sanghera’s metaphor of ‘shoplifting’ is apt, for the novel is co-incidentally a history of the Asian-owned corner shop, an institution now familiar and dear to most of us but rarely prominent in fiction (though Hanif Kureishi and John Lanchester have both given it space). We learn here about the punishingly early hours, the neighbourhood rivalries and caste loyalties, the overcrowded shelves, the mice, the anguish over whether or not to sell alcohol, the niceties of intercourse with and the threats of violence from customers, the language difficulties, the threat of competition from the supermarkets. Merry Hill, the huge shopping complex near Dudley built in the 1980s, gets its mention, and clearly was as much feared by small shopkeepers as the steam and electric trams were by Burslem, whose citizens rightly saw that trade would move to Hanley and leave the Baines’s drapery store abandoned. Towards the end of the novel, Surinder, the runaway auntie, returns home and casts her entrepreneurial eye over the Wolverhampton scene. She expounds to her narrator nephew her intellectual belief in independent retail — ‘if the small shop was done for, then why were Turkish families and supermarkets getting into the convenience-store trade?’
She doubles the turnover while cutting hours, and releases the family to go for unprecedented (and not wholly welcome) country walks on Sundays, along with the horrid little dog. The mix of comedy, satire, realism and optimism is nicely judged. We wish Surinder and Wolverhampton well.