Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens

I've been on the waiting list to read Shankari Chandran's Chai Time At Cinnamon Gardens for so long, it's probably time for the new winner of the Miles Franklin Award to be announced. There was even a reserve list at the Athenaeum! But my turn eventually arrived at good old Preston Library.

Despite waiting for so many months I'd lost count, I did not take advantage of this time to find out anything at all about the novel. I think I'd assumed from the title that it would be something like The Thursday Murder Club or those books set in nursing homes -- sorry, aged care facilities -- where people climb out of the windows (extremely unlikely in the aged care homes that I'm familiar with). The cover also led me to believe that this might be a gentle, whimsical story with quirky characters and a heart-warming ending.

Well, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens was sort of like that -- but also not like that at all. To begin with, much of the story centred on the civil war in Sri Lanka, a period of history I'm ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about. This brutal and bloody background colours the experience of several characters, and reminds us how many refugees and migrants to this country have come from such horrific situations. Towards the end, the novel becomes quite polemical in sketching an all-too-plausible white reaction to the Sri Lankan facility in their midst -- I'd like to be able to say it seems a little over the top, but alas, it's probably not extreme enough.

Chai Time was a much darker novel than I anticipated, including domestic violence and racist attacks as well as scenes of torture and slaughter, though there are indeed uplifting relationships and quirky characters. It's definitely a story of modern Australia and a worthy winner, a book that deserves many readers. With reserve lists this long, it's defiitely finding them.

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