Before I begin my review I want to tell you what made me read this book in the first place. Because if I’m perfectly honest biographies and memoirs really aren’t my thing. Probably due to the fact that in recent years every celebrity appears to cash-in with their story and I’m sorry – we writers should stick together and everything – but if you’re twenty-one and in a Boy Band, I’m not entirely convinced you’ve got much of a lifestory to tell.
That said one of my all time favourite books is Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. So strong are the family connections between myself and this story that my youngest son is named Laurence/ Laurie/ Our Little Lol. And it was a chance conversation with Sathnam Sanghera on Twitter about the aforementioned poet/writer Lee which drew my attention to Sathnam’s articles as a journalist. Having enjoyed the style and pace of his writing I knew I needed to read The Boy with the Topknot. Mind you that was nearly a year ago so I must apologise for the delay in reading it!
On the cover of my copy of Topknot the story is described as A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton. I’ve prevaricated over this review – and not because I didn’t enjoy the story, on the contrary I found it to be an emotional journey – because as the cover suggests there’s quite a bit of intrigue and I don’t want to give the game away…
So here’s the deal: I’m going to tell you how I’ve identified with Sathnam’s story and why I think everyone should read this culturally significant account.
Sathnam’s journey begins five years before he actually puts backside-to-chair-fingers-to-keyboard when he finds out a secret regarding his father’s health and later the same condition relating to his sister. Deciding he needs to confront the issue of why his family have kept it from him for so long he goes on a journey into his family’s past, discovering how exactly they came from the Punjab to settle in Wolverhampton. My description probably doesn’t sound very inspiring but you have to read Sathnam’s account and immerse yourself in his family, his past, his culture to really appreciate the significance of this story.
Not only is this a narrative about Sathnam’s family and their past, it’s very openly about him and his need to confront the difference between himself and the generation above him. The difference of being raised by one culture (Sikh Asian) submersed in another (British). Interwoven with the present and his struggle to find answers to the past are many beautifully detailed, humorous accounts of his childhood. And here’s where the real identification happened for me.
It felt like looking into the past but from a completely different perspective.
I couldn’t have had much of a different upbringing to Sathnam Sanghera. I was raised in the aforementioned Laurie Lee countryside in a quaint little Cotswold village where the likes of Jilly Cooper were our neighbours. Sathnam was raised in urban Wolverhampton. I’m an only child. Sathnam has three siblings and a wealth of cousins that as an only child I can only envy. And yet there was the mention of the Michael Jackson and George Michael obsessions, recording the Sunday chart show to make mix-tapes and my most funny account – which made me laugh out loud and wake my children up – the Barclays Bank Account folder of which I had one too and was my most treasured possession (there is quite a bit of talk of obsessing over stationery in this book and I can only sympathise!).
So what has this book left me feeling? Well I have to confess, one thing is guilt. Guilt at my ignorance. I went to secondary school with quite a few Asian girls and if I’m perfectly honest I couldn’t tell you which religion they were. Okay so I could say that I was a teenager and I was far too interested in boys but I sat next to Rume and Ruma for four years in German and they quite often talked about festivals and fasting and I find it embarrassing now that I didn’t consider the world from their perspective.
But what touched me most is Sathnam’s feeling of responsibility to his family, especially his mother and that has left me with a feeling of reassurance. I’ve always felt a similar honour bound duty to my parents. Psychologists could have field day at the insecurities I have with my mother – even at thirty I often seek her approval of my actions. What The Boy with the Topknot has made me realise is that I’m not the only one who feels that way.
And it doesn’t matter what faith or culture you come from. Families are most important.