Book Review: Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran
This review was originally published by The AU Review on January 20, 2022.
It is easy to imagine Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, the new novel by Shankari Chandran becoming an amazing television miniseries.
On first glance at its beautiful green cover, the reader might be forgiven for thinking that they are in for a sweet, gentle, heartwarming novel about relatively harmless retirees living in a nursing home. Instead, they are treated to a powerful, compassionate novel about friendship, family, community-building, and the racism faced by members of diasporic communities in this country.
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens centres around the Cinnamon Gardens Nursing Home in Westgrove, Sydney, owned by Maya Ali and her daughter, Dr Anjali Ali. Maya and her husband Zakhir invested in the refurbishment of the home in the early 1980s after moving to Australia from Sri Lanka during the Civil War. The couple put thought and care into making Cinnamon Gardens a comfortable and desirable place to live. By the present day, it has become a community within a community, where other residents who have been forced to leave their homes make a new home together. In many senses, the Nursing Home feels very much like a family. But the prejudices of some others in the community soon begin to threaten the peace and tranquility the Alis have nurtured, with Cinnamon Gardens becoming a microcosm for Australia as a whole.
There are so many threads to Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens that it is hard to know what to talk about in this review and what to leave for the reader to discover themselves. Each of the characters who tells the story has a rich backstory and interior life. The set of them weave together to create a multi-layered portrait, so that the community and the Nursing Home at its heart is as much the protagonist of the story as Maya is.
Maya herself is both formidable and motherly – having moved to Sri Lanka after devastating events, she sees the hypocrisies and prejudices of Australia clearly and does not hesitate to point them out. After several attempts to follow her dreams and publish a book that the industry deems ‘too exotic’, Maya chooses instead to make a study of stereotypical Australianness in fiction. She creates an outback frontierswoman named Clementine Kelly and invents herself a pseudonym – a reclusive author named Sarah Byrne who those in publishing find so acceptable that she quickly becomes a best seller. This sub-plot, while it will amuse and delight the reader, is also a subtle critique of the whiteness of Australian publishing. It is just one of many aspects of this rich and moving novel.
Another sub-plot centres around the removal of a statue of Captain Cook from the grounds of the Nursing Home. The actions of Zakhir Ali in removing the statue, as well as the later furore over it faced by his family, allows the reader to more closely examine the complexity of issues to do with history and symbolism in countries where colonisation has taken place. This added layers of meaning to a debate which was happening in our own news media not that long ago.
At just over 350 pages, the book manages to cover discussions about politics, race, history, relationships and so much more, without ever feeling didactic or forced. This is real life, but it is also good storytelling. I hope that many readers will pick up this novel, and join the conversation that this book begins.