The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
|The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
|Category: Literary Fiction
|Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
|Summary: This Booker-shortlisted novel tracks the difficult lives of four Indian immigrants in Sheffield. With multilingual slang and several Sikh characters, it illuminates aspects of the South Asian experience that might be unfamiliar.
|Date: June 2015
Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize
Sunjeev Sahota made the Granta list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013, after releasing his debut novel, Ours Are the Streets, in 2011. His second novel, which revisits the first book's theme of South Asian immigrants seeking a new life in Yorkshire, has earned Sahota a place on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist. It is structured in four parts according to the seasons, starting in the winter of 2003, and also has four main characters, all of whom have faced major challenges in moving to Sheffield. Tarlochan Kumar (known as Tochi), the new guy, moves in to the crummy shared house where friends Avtar Nijjar and Randeep Sanghera live. The fourth protagonist is Randeep's visa-wife, Narinder Kaur, a devout Sikh.
Daily life is hard for each of our heroes. The men work multiple menial jobs to make ends meet, whether serving at Crunchy Fried Chicken, cleaning sewers, or building a luxury hotel in Leeds. Meanwhile, they all live in fear of immigration raids. 'Maybe it was true what they said about England. That this was where you could make something,' Tochi thinks to himself soon after he arrives in the country. Yet the sense of struggle never ends. As the men's colleague Gurpreet puts it, 'This life. It makes everything a competition. A fight. For work, for money. There's no peace. Ever. Just fighting for the next job. Fight fight fight.'
This is nothing compared to what the men faced back in India, though. Through flashbacks the novel considers each one's past in turn. Tochi had some success as a rickshaw driver but lost his entire family in a massacre. He made it to the UK, via Turkey, in the back of a lorry. Avtar sold one of his kidneys to get cash to go abroad. Randeep left behind a suicidal father and the shame of his expulsion from school after a case of sexual harassment. England might represent a new start, but it is not the perfect haven they're hoping for – Avtar is always short on his loans, and debt collectors beat him up and threaten to harm his family back home.
It's a harrowing read, but you can't help but sympathize with these four runaways as they make and dissolve connections over the course of a year. The friendship that develops between Tochi and Narinder, the two most interesting characters, is particularly touching. The several Sikh characters give insight into a religion that may be unfamiliar to many readers. Narinder, especially, is heavily involved with charity through the local gurdwara, but this 'Girl from God' loses her early religiosity after the terrible stories she hears over this year.
I especially liked the descriptions of food preparation and the information about arranged marriages. At times, though, I wished for a glossary and a bit of background information about some of the caste and/or religious prejudices. There is a lot of foreign language slang; this infuses the novel with the authentic flavour of the South Asian immigrant community, but can be a little disorienting for the average reader. You're just dropped straight into it and expected to cope. In addition, the novel ends a bit suddenly, following an epilogue that doesn't seem entirely irrelevant. All the same, this strikes me as the most likely Booker winner, based on past trends. It's a safe choice given Booker's love of postcolonial literature and the weighty subject matter.
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota is in the Man Booker Prize 2015.
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