In many ways, except that it is not a “five hanky” novel, this book – The Year of the Runaways – is similar to The Little Life, in that it charts the relationship between four young men. There the similarity ends. Firstly, because it takes place over one year, with some background in-filling; second, because the young men come from widely different backgrounds and areas and finally because its purpose is very different.
One can never know exactly what an author, in this case Sunjeev Sahota, has in mind when he/she first puts pen to paper (probably not but the phrase is still notionally valid). Is there a plan or merely a set of circumstances? Do the characters come first or the location? Is it the situation that is the driving force or does character drive the narrative?
In the light of the tens of thousands of migrating people trying to get into the United Kingdom, seen daily on our televisions, this book is most timely, because the characters – Tochi, Randeep, Avtar and Gurpreet are all illegal or semi-legal immigrants carving out something like a life having made their hazardous and nerve stretching entry into Britain. Randeep is the “most” legal – having made a visa marriage, Avtar is a student on an education visa and Gurpreet has been in England so long that his history never even comes up, but they are not here in any way that most of us could imagine as either safe or satisfactory. Tochi, both the most interesting and the most sympathetic, is quite straightforwardly, illegal. He has no visa.
So when we look at all the people trying to get into this country, what do we imagine their lives will be like? The Year of the Runaways delivers some answers. All of the people in this novel are under a lot of pressure, driven from home by a number of factors that most of us would think were quite horrible. When they do get here, even for Randeep, the pressure is immense – they have debts that they must repay or there will be consequences back at home; they have illegal, underpaid and dangerous jobs – Avtar ends up cleaning sewers – for anything but a very low caste Indian this is a bitter disgrace, but we are not spared the awfulness experienced by the only chanaar (or Dalit, Dhain or untouchable), Tochi; they are homesick and live in atrocious housing, forever fearing raids and finally they are survivors only because they are ruthless. If one has to leave to report for student exams, another will go and take the job that one has been doing, if there are only a few places in the labour van that collects them and there is only one place left, then one of them will be left on the tarmac without work that day.
Even a “visa marriage” is not ideal. There are humiliating interviews by officials who are checking that the marriage is a real one, when of course it is not and the couple are not really living together, there is a constant threat of surprise visits and then there is the secrecy. In this book we see this from both sides, the selfish absorption of the man and the sacrifice of the woman, Narindar. We learn why and how this wonderful woman came to be helping Randeep, a truly heart-breaking story.
Salman Rushdie is quoted as saying “all you can do is surrender, happily, to its power”. Well I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, but happily, no? This is not a happy book, it is a book full of incident and emotion but “happiness” is not one of them. The gradual reveals are gut-twisting and often appalling but so well constructed that is is like opening the “parcel” in the game Pass the Parcel. You urgently want the music to stop when you have the parcel, but rather dread finding what is beneath the next layer of paper.
Sanjeev Sahota has written another novel, Ours are the Streets for which he earned the accolade of Granta Best Young British Novelist 2013. This novel, The Year of the Runaways, does not disappoint, it has a thread of realism, acute observation and lucid prose which backs up the elements of this narrative, it is probably not a winner and may be crowded off the short-list in September, but I am heartily glad to have read it.