BOOK REVIEW: Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens by Shankari Chandran

Karina Ames

Shankari Chandran’s Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens is both a tale about a Sydney nursing home community and a confronting story of genocide.

Author Shankari Chandran

The novel begins with a family escaping political tensions and past trauma in Sri Lanka.

Maya, her husband Zakhir and their children arrive in Australia after leaving Sri Lanka’s civil war behind them.

Haunted by their pasts, they are confronted with new horrors in their adopted homeland.

Maya hopes taking on a nursing home renovation project in Sydney will ‘restore her husband as much as he would restore it.’

She nurtures the flowers, plants and flavours of her original home, introducing the residents to Tamil food.

Tolerant community inside the walls

Within the walls of Cinnamon Gardens, Maya succeeds in building a tolerant community where the only religious skirmishes involve the placement of religious deities on a multi-faith altar in the nursing home shrine room.

‘Like any Hindu shrine, it held statues of the Buddha, Jesus Christ and his poor mother Mary.’

Outside the walls, the family and their staff face discrimination ranging from schoolyard tensions and an ambivalent police force to violent attacks.

The primary victim is the mild-mannered Ruben, a fellow refugee who holds secrets of his own and is fiercely loyal to Maya and her family.

Captain Cook scandal

The nursing home becomes embroiled in a scandal involving the displacement of a Captain Cook statue.

The architect of the scandal, Gareth, is married to Cinnamon Gardens’ geriatrician Nikki. He’s a failed local councillor, who allows guilt and rejection to push him to a deranged state leading to tragic consequences.

While most of the characters in this book are richly drawn, Gareth’s character is more like a caricature or obvious plot device than a realistic representation.

Lovers and tragedy

The novel explores how tragedy can bring lovers together or break them.

Maya and Zakhir face tragedy early in their relationship and survive, raising their children in Australia until Zakhir reckons with his past.

Gareth and Nikki also face tragedy but it has the opposite effect, pushing them further away from each other.

They move to ‘the margins of each other, circling their marriage from its periphery.’

The haunting undercurrents of the present day story are the events that led Maya, Zakhir and Ruben to leave Sri Lanka.

Flashbacks to confronting torture scenes are contrasted with attacks in their new homeland and references to genocide and colonisation on Australian soil.

The power of words

Language and story-telling feature heavily throughout the novel. Ruben is a talented linguist who used his skills to escape Sri Lanka. He holds the key to Maya’s story and protects her in a selfless act.

Maya forges a career as a reclusive Australian author and captures the nursing home residents’ stories.

As the novel closes, she begins to record the shared stories of her loved ones, saying ‘The stories we tell our children… These are the temples we build.’

She is showing words can have power over past cruelties.

Chai or something stronger?

Some of this novel could be accompanied by a hot cup of Chai.

The rest may call for something stronger as the reader grapples with the harsh truths the story uncovers about the similarities of the refugee experience and colonisation in Sri Lanka and Australia.

The contrasting stories, themes and movement between the past and present day can be a struggle to follow so close attention is needed while keeping up with this novel’s complex themes and personal stories.

Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, by Shankari Chandran, is published by Ultimo Press and won the 2023 Miles Franklin Award.

The reviewer’s copy was from Berkelouw Books, Eumundi.



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