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Rebel, Rebel: Sunjeev Sahota

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.


The Book

CHINA ROOM by Sunjeev Sahota (Viking/Penguin Random House)


I first encountered this book on one of my favourite radio shows, CBC's Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel. Alternating between the distant past and the almost-present, CHINA ROOM is told from the perspectives of Mehar, a young bride living on a farm in 1929 Punjab, and a young man who travels from Britain to the same, now-abandoned farm in 1999.


This book is a wonder for so many reasons. (CHINA ROOM happens to have my favourite ending line of all time -- but that's a story for another day.) In this post, I'll be focusing on its length: a cool 64,000 words, according to readinglength.com. For a story told from alternating points-of-view ("dual-POV" in industry-speak), that's really short. Many lit agents will balk at a dual-POV manuscript less than 80,000 words, and for good reason.


Why you might want to follow the rules

For a dual-POV story to work, the reader must be equally invested in both characters. That means each character needs a rich and distinct arc. We need to see their vulnerabilities and learn to empathize with them. Each character must have meaningful wants and needs (these are different things). For most of us writers, we'll need to spend more time (i.e. more pages) with each character to achieve all this. Thus, longer books.


Why it works to break the rules in this case

First of all, this book is just really f***ing good. Sunjeev Sahota does not need 80,000 words to sell the reader on his characters. The 1999 narrative is told in the first-person ("I"), while the 1929 narrative is told in an extremely close third-person ("she"). We see the world through their eyes and, even more importantly, interpret the world through their memories and expectations of it. This helps Sahota make excellent use of space; we get into these characters fast.


Second of all, CHINA ROOM is literary fiction. There seems to be a bit more leeway in this genre, as far as word counts go, compared to commercial genres. For reference, most adult fiction published nowadays tends to fall between 80,000 to 100,000 words. This has less to do with storytelling and more to do with readers' buying habits, as well as the cost of paper. A lot of people might feel cheated paying $29.99 for a book that's only, say, 200 pages.


This is super unfortunate because shorter books are some of the best books! The author Rumaan Alam has previously said that most modern fiction is too long, and I tend to agree. (I recently listened to Alam's interview with Hattie Crisell, which was excellent; go check it out!) My personal pet peeve is excessive setting description. Do we really need to know what kind of sconces are on the walls? Do we?? If it doesn't serve the story, it doesn't belong on the page. That's my preference, anyway.


Check out CHINA ROOM for a compelling read and a masterclass in making use of space. You can do it a lot with a few words (at least, if your name is Sunjeev Sahota).

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