Well we’re almost at the end of the year, and I’ve finally managed to finish off this year’s Man Booker Challenge! It’s not that I’ve been putting this one off, it’s just there was an inexplicably long waiting list for it at the library so I’ve only just got hold of it in order to read it…
The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota
Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the choatic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband’s clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call.
Sweeping between India and England, and between childhood and the present day The Year of the Runaways is a story of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance.
I wouldn’t quite say I’d saved the best until last, because I still think A Brief History of Seven Killings is a magnificent book and thoroughly deserved to win. However, The Year of the Runaways is certainly a close second, and would have been a strong winner itself.
This is a deeply political book. Sahota takes the tabloid fodder of illegal migrant workers and fraudulent marriage/student visas and turns them into a personal tale that is honest and unflinching without ever feeling exploitative. The characters are believable, sympathetic and well-written.
The book alternates between sections outlining the characters’ current lives trying to find work in Sheffield, and sections giving their backgrounds and their various reasons for leaving India. I found all four characters compelling, but especially Tarlochan (Tochi), a “chamar” or member of the “untouchable” caste who has fled appalling violence and poverty. The horrors in his past are outlined in enough detail so you understand his motivation, but are not lingered over. Of the three men, he is the most ruthless in his attempts to succeed in building a new life – but then, he has the most reason to.
I struggled to warm to Narinder, Randeep’s British-Indian “visa wife” at first – she initially seemed a bit of a stereotype of the downtrodden Indian woman. However towards the second half of the book we learn a lot more about her background, her motivation for helping Randeep, and her current life – and she becomes a lot more interesting. I thought early on that Sahota was falling into the too-common trap of having lots of well-drawn male characters but only one poor excuse for a female character, but I’m happy to have been proved wrong on that front.
I’m hugely impressed by The Year of the Runaways, and am almost pleased it’s taken me so long to get to it, as it’s been a great book to finish the year on!