Shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize last year, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is a quietly tragic, detailed novel. It has heavy political impacts, without ever being political or partisan, and takes such an strong emotional toll. It could be seen as a fictional antidote to our fear-fuelled frothing times, potential compulsory reading to instil a little more education and empathy into the world.
Tochi, Avtar and Randeep have fled India, each for their own reasons – financial, familial, personal – for England. Trapped by corruption, a limiting visa system, the law, and surrounded by people who take advantage of all of that, they try and establish themselves in a country that doesn’t seem to want them. Each of them, along with Narinder – Randeep’s visa-wife living on the other side of town – have their own secrets and dreams, they are shaking off their history, attempting to hope, but trapped by a system.
Narinder was born in the UK, and she and Randeep have to prove their marriage for one year for the immigration authorities. Tochi found his way into the country in the back of a truck. Avtar is on a student visa, and working illegally. All of these ways and visas cost a lot of money, and money matters most when you have none. This is where so much of their suffering and tragedy comes from. Family businesses have been mortgaged, organs harvested and sold, loans with massive interest rates taken just to get there.
And when they make it to this prosperous country they cannot find work, when they do they are paid well below minimum wage, and their shady visa statuses mean they are powerless. Living in squats, the streets, overcrowded housing, on the lounge of an obscure relative drafted in to help; there is a total lack of agency in their own lives. Tochi, Avtar and Randeep came to England to help themselves and their family: they should be earning money to feed themselves, to save, as well as sending some home. But trapped in a system where often their mere existence in the country is illegal, they are powerless to engage in society for more.
At first, I was not impressed with this book. In fact, even upon finishing it, the summary of my response was “meh”. It is sad, sure, but there was no sparkling immersion that the reviews promised. But it is a quiet achiever: slowly, the characters grew on me. So slowly that I had already finished the book and it was still developing for me. I came to deeply care about the characters and the infuriatingly tragic and unfair world they were trapped in. We are thrown into a world just as foreign as they find their own surrounds, almost claustrophobic in its circumstances.
And there is a subtlety to the prose. There is no poetry, but a filtering through of light and sense, a bubbling through of beauty.
“It was the hottest summer. Only ten o’clock, and the men were out of the fields and rushing indoors, to ceiling fans and chilled glasses of nimbu-pani. In the bazaar, shopkeepers lay asleep on their menjhe, not expecting any trade. A buffalo lay sprawled in the tree shad, blinking fatly each time a guava fell onto its wide head.”
No lines really grabbed me, but memories stayed with me; impressions are still resonating. There is a richness to the detail also, written from a place of extensive knowledge and empathy.
In all, my last impression is one of care: Sahota structures the storytelling and chapters; character development; issues and experiences all with such care. This gives it a quiet power, a validity, the details adding to its presence and potential. It is truly sad, and the implications of the world this book deals with is still with me weeks later.