The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
Published in 2015 by Picador
My copy: Library
The Year of the Runaways tells of the bold dreams and daily struggles of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance. 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, this is a story of dignity in the face of adversity and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.
This novel was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and I was so keen to read it that I picked up the massive hardback version in my local library – I’m not usually a fan of hardback novels as I hate lugging them around, so I made sure I read this over a recent long weekend so I wouldn’t have to haul it onto the tube with me!
This novel comes in at just under 500 pages and it’s quite a heavy read – and not just because I picked up the hefty hardback version! It’s a gritty story, and often the suffering of the characters is quite relentless, as they are met with indifference at best and violence at worst, both in India and the UK. A lot of the action focuses on the three male characters, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep as they struggle to find work in the UK. We also get the story of Narinder, who has married Randeep in order for him to get a visa to come to the UK.
The narrative flits around between the different characters, as well as past and present as we move between India and the UK, and it can be hard to get your bearings at times. The author deliberately doesn’t always make it immediately obvious which of the characters we are following from one section to the next and I must admit I found this frustrating at times.
I think what worked really well was the contrasts – and similarities – between life in India and the UK, and I found the characters’ back stories as interesting, if not more so, than the present day action. I found Narinder the most interesting of all the characters and I thought that her inner conflicts and the gradual slipping of her faith to be well presented. The reason for her marrying Randeep was not entirely convincing, but in general her character was really interesting and I enjoyed her sections of the novel the most. In fact, I think a whole novel could easily have been devoted to Narinder alone, and in some ways her story felt quite separate to that of the male characters, although it did provide an interesting contrast and she was relevant to some parts of the plot.
Overall I did really enjoy this novel. I was drawn to both the descriptions of the struggles in the UK, as well as the characters’ pasts in India. I think it gave an interesting and realistic view of the struggles that immigrants face in this country and also how they end up resenting and hurting each other in various ways in their desperation to get by.
However there were some parts of the story that felt a bit too far-fetched, and I also found the character of Tochi – who had by far the most tragic past – to be a bit unconvincing at times. Despite this, I thought the novel was well-written overall and definitely got me thinking.