When it comes to marriage, Sathnam Sanghera has not just written the book, he has re-written it.
The 36-year-old Wolverhampton-born journalist is about to see his first work of fiction published.
Marriage Material is a modern re-telling of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives Tale.
But while Bennett’s book is set in a drapery shop in Burslem in the 1800s, Sathnam has moved his version about 38 miles south to a Wolverhampton convenience store between the 1960s and 2011.
Both stories are about two sisters – where one stays with the family business and gets married and the other elopes.
Bennett’s book was on the syllabus when Sathnam was a pupil at Wolverhampton Grammar School.
“It reminded me so much of Punjabi culture”, says Sathnam. “It was about the obsession with hard work, with accumulated wealth and with marriage over everything else.”
The original novel is about the English Baines family. Sathnam’s is about a Sikh family called Bains.
The columnist for The Times believes that, like the children in the original Bennett novel, the children of immigrant families have had it easier than their parents.
“We’ve all benefitted from our parents’ hard work”, he says. “It means people like me can be writers or artists.
“People are not going into the shop business as much.
“But the shops can still make lots of money. You only have to look along the Dudley Road in Blakenhall and see that you can buy more Indian goods there than you probably could on a street in India.”
From an opening passage quoting the town’s former MP Enoch Powell to the arguments of Sikh bus drivers demanding to be allowed to wear their turbans at the wheel, life goes on as long as someone is minding the shop.
Sathnam’s research is meticulous – he worked in four different convenience stores and spent 18 months writing – but he has also clearly been keeping up with what is going on by reading the Express & Star.
It will bring a wry smile to the face of anyone who has ever lived in Wolverhampton and has complained about it.
“It’s affectionate”, Sathnam says. “I love Wolverhampton. But I think anyone who has grown up here has at some point rejected it.
“I wanted Wolverhampton to be a character in the book. It’s as important as everyone else to the story. In 1968, when Enoch Powell was around, there were three national TV documentaries about it. Wolverhampton was like our Harlem. It was a place which had experienced mass immigration and was dealing with the fallout.”
His book deals with the inner struggle of immigrant families over whether they should do more to be a part of English culture or strive to preserve their own.
Sathnam’s parents still live in Ettingshall Park and get on well with their neighbours, despite the language barrier.
He is the youngest of four children and his first book, The Boy With The Topknot, is a memoir both about growing up as a Sikh in Wolverhampton and about coping with his father’s schizophrenia.
While meticulous care has been taken to make sure all the facts and place names are right, Sathnam has made up the name of the road the shop is in – Victoria Road – and the area of the city, Blakenfields.
But it is unmistakeably Wolverhampton, written about by someone who grew up there and who has lived in London long enough to understand what makes it different to the capital.
*Marriage Material is published on September 26 by William Heinemann, priced £14.99.