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Merle

Merle

Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

This novel of Indian immigrants struggling to survive in modern England straddles the line between fiction and op-ed. It’s a compelling story, but one in which the author’s interest in documenting the abuses the characters suffer at home and abroad is clearly the top priority.

 

Three young men travel from India to England in search of work, and for a time are all residents of one overcrowded house inhabited by the members of a construction crew. Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi each represent a particular experience: Randeep grows up middle-class with a father in government, but as the only son, is forced to drop out of college and support his family following his father’s nervous breakdown; Avtar’s family is urban working poor, a precarious existence that offers no future to his middle-class girlfriend; Tochi comes from a rural family of the “untouchable” caste, which falls victim to horrific violence in the book’s most over-the-top scene of emotional manipulation. (I almost stopped reading upon reaching this section early in the book, but am glad I didn’t – nothing else in it is quite so manipulative or unearned.) The men find various routes to England depending on their resources; in Randeep’s case, it’s by marrying Narinder, a devout young Sikh woman from an immigrant family who rounds out the primary cast.

 

In a sad irony for a book devoted to chronicling the lives of desperate immigrants, Sahota seems much more capable of inhabiting those characters who come from comfortable backgrounds. Randeep and Narinder are fully-realized characters with inner lives. Avtar and Tochi are object lessons in the difficulties of being poor in India and the reasons young men would immigrate to England even under harsh conditions. Both can be thoroughly described by the word “dutiful,” and neither has any discernible inner life, unless you count occasionally becoming angry at their circumstances. Randeep and Narinder are shaped by the circumstances of their lives but have personality that isn’t a direct response to the events around them; Avtar and Tochi read like hollow representatives of “typical” poor immigrant men.

 

That said, the story moves briskly and Sahota does an excellent job of chronicling the characters’ day-to-day lives in a compelling way, which had me eager to return to the story even when I wasn’t fully convinced by the characters. As a work intended to raise awareness about a social issue, this does an excellent job: Sahota writes with authority about the characters’ circumstances, shaping readers’ understanding of their lives so that we understand their choices and the protagonists remain sympathetic characters throughout. At times the tragedy becomes predictable (I was reminded of Rohinton Mistry, though this isn’t quite as tragic or of the same literary caliber), though it isn’t simply an endless catalogue of misery; more often the characters experience good things only to have them snatched away. The end is rather weak: the final chapter leaves the characters at their lowest point, only to jump 10 years into the future for the epilogue. Seeing how the characters pulled out of those circumstances would have improved the book, though it’s long already. And for a 10-years-later epilogue, this one is surprisingly inconclusive.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that the text includes many Punjabi words (and without a glossary); unlike most books that do this, this one does not always make the meaning evident from context. A few times I tried to find translations online (with varying success), though they are not so crucial that you wouldn’t understand the story.

 

At any rate, I enjoyed reading this book and think it’s a good one for raising awareness and for those who enjoy social realist novels. Rounding the rating down on sites that require it because although the plot kept me engaged while reading, I would have appreciated a little more literary quality and a little less of an object lesson.