At first glance, Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens, the latest novel from prolific Australian author Shankari Chandran, may look like a light affair: a tale about a diverse group of elderly Australians living in a family-run nursing home in Sydney.
But beyond the twee cover and cozy title, Chandran’s novel has serious heft, spanning several timelines and tackling complex topics like race, trauma and the structural inequality engendered in so-called multicultural Australia.
The titular Cinnamon Gardens is a nursing home in Sydney, which was revamped in the 80s by migrant couple Maya and Zakhir after they fled civil war in their home of Sri Lanka. As Tamils and academics, the couple experienced persecution, torture and intimidation, forcing them to leave. Cinnamon Gardens offers a new beginning and the couple transform it into a sanctuary for culturally diverse seniors.
Fast forward several decades to the mid-2000s and Zakhir is missing, presumed dead. Maya is a resident in the nursing home she developed which is now run by her daughter Anjali. Cinnamon Gardens, meanwhile, becomes the site of a culture war when local councillor Gareth – a longtime friend of Anjali – discovers that her parents once toppled a statue of Captain Cook which stood at the nursing home, in an act of anti-colonial rebellion. He accuses Cinnamon Gardens of racism and lodges a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, instigating a nation-wide backlash against “ungrateful” immigrant communities.
This sets off a series of escalating events that unmasks the brewing discord in western Sydney’s multicultural community, and triggers the trauma of the residents and staff who have escaped persecution in their home countries.
The novel is told through two timelines: the first in the present day, as Maya and Anjali grapple with the accusations brought to them, and the second through flashbacks to the Sri Lankan civil war. As each new piece of the puzzle of the family’s past is uncovered, we get closer to solving the mystery of Zakhir’s disappearance.
If it sounds like there’s a lot to keep track of in Chandran’s novel, that’s because there is. There’s family violence; the tragic loss of a child; torture and displacement; a famous author hiding behind a pseudonym; a political battle for local council; extra-marital affairs; and to top it all off, a terrible and unexpected tragedy.
The complexity of the narratives are partly to the book’s strength: every character gets a true and nuanced backstory, and Chandran is indisputably talented at creating characters that inspire empathy. But it does feel as though one or two storylines could have been cut; the complexity undermines the suspense of the novel opener and, by the time its mysteries are solved, you may find yourself having lost track of what was happening regardless.
And while I love a sprawling, intergenerational epic, the balance doesn’t always sit right in Chai Time; the entire present-day timeline takes place over a short period, in contrast with decades in the flashbacks. Chandran possesses an incredible ability to immerse the reader in historical fact and detail that makes even the most unimaginable scenes in Sri Lanka feel real – but a simpler story may have made for a better book.
Chai Time in Cinnamon Gardens is an enticing, if not entirely realised, opportunity for a wider conversation about Australia, the diversity of its people and the gaps in our collective cultural knowledge. This is a book that requires concentration and full immersion – but it will reward the reader for that investment.