For Sathnam Sanghera, growing up in Wolverhampton in the eighties was a confusing business. On the one hand, these were the heady days of George Michael mix-tapes, Dallas on TV and, if he was lucky, the occasional Bounty Bar. On the other, there was his wardrobe of tartan smocks, his 30p-an-hour job at the local sewing factory and the ongoing challenge of how to tie the perfect top-knot.
And then there was his family, whose strange and often difficult behaviour he took for granted until, at the age of twenty-four, Sathnam made a discovery that changed everything he ever thought he knew about them. Equipped with breathtaking courage and a glorious sense of humour, he embarks on a journey into their extraordinary past – from his father’s harsh life in rural Punjab to the steps of the Wolverhampton Tourist Office – trying to make sense of a life lived among secrets.
This book was next up for my World Book Night reading challenge and if I’m being perfectly honest it was one of a couple I was least looking forward too. I mean, a young Sikh boy growing up in eighties Wolverhampton, how was this going to interest me but I couldn’t have been more wrong I thoroughly enjoyed it. Another case of never judge a book by its cover!
In a nutshell the story is about a man who wants to tell his mother that he wants to live his own life and marry who he chooses and loves and not someone that is expected or arranged but he just can’t find the right words so he wants to put it all in a letter to his mother which will then be translated for her. He starts to write the letter and whilst he’s dealing with his own emotions he delves into his family’s history and parents marriage. This is a real insight into Indian culture and the Sikh religion in an everyday context and its integration (or not) into a modern day England.
His father and elder sister both struggled with mental health issues that were not very well diagnosed (eventually as Schizophrenia) and there seemed to be a lack of support from any health care agencies. The following investigations that Sathnam carried out int0 his father’s illnesses history was just incredible that people could be so unhelpful!
I loved the eighties references, they reminded me of my own childhood and growing up like the tape to tape recording and DJs talking over the music, the fashion and the George Michael posters.
Wolverhampton is relatively local to me, only being about 12 miles away, so I know a lot of the places mentioned and so could quite vividly picture them.
This is a really witty memoir with all the chapters having appropriate song titles; I particularly liked chapter 11 – You Got It (The Right Stuff) as I was a massive fan of New Kids on the Block! There are some very funny scenes but also quite humbling and very often sad. There’s a particualar paragraph on Sathnam’s interpretation of what it would mean to be illiterate which almost had me in tears; what it means to not be able to read; what his parents were missing out on and things you don’t necessarily think of but must have and obviously did affect their standard of living.
“…not being able to work out the best-before date on groceries, …not daring to travel anywhere you haven’t travelled before, in case you get lost, …staring into the distance in waiting rooms because there is nothing else to do, sending your son a ‘for my husband’ birthday card because the newsagent misunderstands your request, …not being able to read what your son writes in a newspaper”
Overall, a very interesting and enjoyable read that surprised me!
Connect with the author Sathnam Sanghera