The Spoiled Heart by Sunjeev Sahota review – the political is personal

<span>Depth and subtlety … Sunjeev Sahota.</span><span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Depth and subtlety … Sunjeev Sahota.Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

On the release of his third novel, 2021’s Booker-longlisted China Room, Sunjeev Sahota noted with some frustration the limiting lens through which his work tends to be viewed. “Everyone always comments on the fact that my novels all have brown protagonists,” he remarked, “but what no one ever says is that there aren’t actually any characters in my novels who aren’t working class.”

As is to be expected from a novelist whose work has addressed religious radicalisation, migration and intergenerational trauma, Sahota was probing challenging territory. He was also, it now becomes clear, laying the groundwork for his fourth novel, which leans decisively into exactly this ideological tension.

At the centre of The Spoiled Heart is Nayan Olak. From a factory job in the small Derbyshire town of Chesterfield, Nayan has worked his way up to the point where he is running to be union leader. Espousing a politics firmly rooted in class analysis, he emphasises tan­gible material improvements: safer working conditions, fairer contracts, better pensions. Well known and well liked, he polls strongly, and seemingly can’t lose.

While Nayan benefits from the relative privilege that attends a middle-aged man who is largely affirming the status quo, Megha, his determined young opponent for the position, has to work far harder to be heard. Emphasising racial inequality and demanding meaningful change in a union that has always resisted it, she sees Nayan as “still stuck on the factory floor, spouting the tired old phrases”, while Nayan considers Megha a privileged and ambitious young disruptor – someone who, as his friend says, “wants everything. Because she’s always had everything.” To Megha, Nayan’s politics are retrograde and moribund, whereas Nayan sees in her agitations an ideology of divisiveness, the first step towards “separate buses”.

Every character feels intimately alive, partly because Sahota is so clever in his shifts of perspective

For a narrator, Sahota casts a Zuckerman-like alter ego: Sajjan, a writer from the same town who reconnects with a bruised Nayan and pieces together his unravelling. This additional layer of perspective provides both layered ambiguity and a broadened scope, allowing the novel to take in other lives and viewpoints: Helen, towards whom Nayan is increasingly attracted, and her son Brandon, who is rebuilding his life after a viral public shaming. As Sajjan probes, he gives shape not only to the collapse of Nayan’s seemingly assured election campaign, but to the weight of grief that precedes and in some ways informs it: the death, in an unexplained fire, of Nayan’s mother and infant son.

Novels of this kind, with a full cast, multiple timelines and a sense of pace dependent on the careful release of revelation, demand certain narrative concessions, and Sahota can hardly be blamed for making a few. At times, particularly when he must arrange on his stage some scenery that will later be significant, he makes do with brisk, rather businesslike scenes that risk in their efficiency a slide into the outright schematic. Brandon’s tale in particular – a young man fired from his job and harangued online for a “racist” incident that has, of course, been significantly misinterpreted – never quite achieves the depth and subtlety of the novel’s other storylines.

Further constraints arise from the conceit of having two characters not only express, but to a certain extent inhabit, opposing views. The rising tension and mounting hostility of the election is perfectly paced, and builds to a gripping public debate. But in its shaping of dramatic antagonism, it arguably filters out nuance.

Narrative contingency forces Sahota to think largely in terms of opposition, which means the more complex question of why Megha and Nayan must be pitted against each other, and who benefits from that opposition, doesn’t get the space it merits. Is ideological intransigence the only driver of this kind of conflict, or is a flawed and limited democratic system also to blame? Nayan and Megha, after all, are effectively competing to see which of them a predominantly white voting base finds the more palatable.

What lifts this tightly patterned novel from the weight of its own mechanics is Sahota’s remarkable skill in characterisation. Every person, however narratively significant, feels intimately alive, partly because Sahota is so clever in his shifts of perspective. His characters don’t just appear, they emerge and grow, revealing of themselves a little more in every finely judged interaction.

Related: Novelist Sunjeev Sahota: ‘It’s dispiriting how little we talk about class in the UK’

This is especially true of Megha. For much of the novel we see her precisely as Nayan does: as an antagonist. By the end we see her whole, her sense of hurt and injustice powerfully and movingly revealed. Likewise, Nayan’s relationship with his ageing father – dutiful, resentful, fleetingly tender and yet at the same time repulsed beyond all healing – feels perfectly true, and perfectly judged.

Because of this human depth, the feeling grows that perhaps Sahota is not so much relying on the well worn tropes of the small-town novel (the outcast returning to her hometown, the young man starting again, the well-regarded figure heading for a fall) as exploiting them.

The Spoiled Heart, ultimately, is a novel of guilt, and in its closing stages we come to appreciate that its design is in part its message. Without avoiding individual culpability, Sahota builds a forceful portrait of collective moral failure and responsibility. Guilt, we ultimately realise, is not only individualised, it is diffuse and shared. In this, The Spoiled Heart feels genuinely, uncomfortably contemporary – a novel at once unafraid of judgment and admirably concerned about its consequences. Sahota is a political writer in the truest sense, one who understands that in the end, politics is nothing more than the friction and compromise of life as it is lived. Or, as Sajjan beautifully puts it, “The effort of life, the work of it.”

• The Spoiled Heart is published by Harvill Secker. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.