Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is a sweeping story moving between time and place, from Cinnamon Gardens Nursing Home in Western Sydney to Sri Lanka in the midst of the civil war. The novel is told through a cast of characters. In the 1980s, we’re introduced to Maya and her husband Zakhir as they settle in Australia to restore Cinnamon Gardens, having fled the civil war, and transform the nursing home into a culturally safe haven for its residents. In the present day, Maya is a resident of Cinnamon Gardens which is now being run by her daughter, Anjil, however, the serenity of the home is disrupted when it becomes a target for racial prejudice and abuse. Accompanying this narrative, Chandran shares the stories of Cinnamon Garden’s residents, and the perspective of Anjil’s friends and staff, Ruben and Nikki.
While the cover might allude you into thinking Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is a light, cosy read, in reality, it’s a powerful and at times heart-wrenching story that examines casual and explicit acts of racism within Australian society. In exploring this, Chandran demonstrates how the media can perpetuate and fuel racism, as well as the bureaucratic response from people in power, with cultural diversity being positioned as a mechanism to win votes. Equally as powerful are the quieter conversations had in this book, with there being one particular dinner party scene where Anjil and her husband Nathan navigate subtle racism and sexism with their friends.
However, I think at the core of this novel lies the significance of preserving storytelling and history. The present-day depiction of discrimination is contrasted with the persecution of Tamil people during the Sri Lankan Civil War, including the erasure of history. This novel exposed me to a corner of history I knew nothing about but left me craving to know more – which I can only imagine is Chandran’s intention, with her passion for sharing this story shining through in her writing.
As you may be able to tell, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is a story that tackles a lot of issues, with there being other storylines that I haven’t even touched on. In the beginning, I wondered if it was trying to take on too much, but the way Chandran draws the storylines together and embraces a layered plot while also creating such rich, fulsome and complex characters is astounding. Each plot point and character had its place and was explored in depth, leaving me feeling in awe of Chandran’s craft. A truly deserving winner of the Miles Franklin Award; I will be thinking about this story for a long time to come.
Note: this book was gifted by Ultimo Press.
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