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The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota

One of the defining issues of our time is the wave of migrants fleeing violence and poverty, into Europe and the West. This powerful novel gives a grim insight into the realities the immigrants face when they get here. Get it on Amazon.

Words have power. They help us to escape the troubles of our own worlds. But some books, the darker, sadder ones, provide a window through which we can experience the troubles of others; we are placed into the minds and hearts of the characters as they struggle against obstacles. We feel their pain. As borders close and westerners turn their backs on refugees, separating families and shattering hopes for a future that is safe, stable and full of opportunities, it becomes more and more important that we empathise with those “others”.

Randeep Sanghera stood in front of the green-and-blue map tacked to the wall. The wall had come with the flat, and though it was big and wrinkled, and cigarette butts had once stubbed black islands into the mid Atlantic, he’d kept it, a reminder of the world outside.

Sahota’s second novel is a sweeping, lyrical epic that traces the lives of four young Indians of varying legality as they struggle to make their way in an England that is less welcoming than they expected. It tells their stories: what they have run away from, who they are, how they made their way through closed borders, and what they found when they got there. The man who fakes his marriage for a visa. The woman he marries. An “untouchable” man who conceals his very name to gain acceptance from his peers in his new home. A man whose student visa is threatened by his inability to earn a living while studying full time. Looming over all of this is their identity as Indians, their entrenchment in the caste system, and the bitterness and selfishness of those who were expected to help them.

“He said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.” Randeep turned to Avtar. “Do you think that’s true?” “I think he’s a sentimental creep. We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.”

It is not an easy book to read but it is even harder to put down. The reader is hooked by the vividness of the characters, continuing to sympathise with them even when they do unspeakable things to each other. The violence and sorrow that permeates the pages is told with a stark poetry. While the language is often hard to understand as punjabi words are not translated (but can be guessed from context), the feelings of isolation, betrayal, envy, yearning and loss are universal. The dialogue is perfectly executed and the story unravels at a solid pace.

“What use your pride when we find you dead in the street?” But it wasn’t pride either. Or not just pride. It was a desire to be allowed a say in his life. He wondered if this was selfish; whether, in fact, they were right and he should simply recognize his place in this world.

One weakness, for me, was that the ending was unsatisfying. This is not a “happily ever after” fairy tale, and it would be naive to expect something like that. This is not a fantasy, but a stark reality that faces millions of people right now. And perhaps the lack of an “ending” or resolution is the point; they will never stop being aliens in a foreign world, and the struggle to find their place is not something that can be resolved in a single year. It is an ongoing process, and it is devastating.

There was nothing to do now but wait. He took out a tennis ball and bounced it against the ground and wall opposite, watching its yellow sheen glimmer and die as it ricocheted through the dark. He thought again of that place called Kanyakumari. The place of ends and oceans. It seemed amazing to him that there could be an end to India, one you could point to and identify and work towards. That things needn’t go on as they are forever.

This was a powerful book to read, although much of it was unpleasant. The insight into the community and the effect on the psyche of being cast out, rejected and unwanted was effectively realised in beautiful prose without a single word wasted. It is a book that makes you think, and makes you learn, and makes you yearn for lost hope.

About the Author

Sunjeev Sahota is a British novelist. Sahota was born in 1981 in Derby, and his family moved to Chesterfield when he was seven years old. His paternal grandparents had emigrated to Britain from the Punjab in 1966. After finishing school, Sahota studied mathematics at Imperial College London. As of January 2011, he was working in marketing for the insurance company Aviva.

Sahota had not read a novel until he was 18 years old, when he read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children while visiting relatives in India before starting university. After Midnight’s Children, Sahota went on to read The God of Small Things, A Suitable Boy and The Remains of the Day. In an interview in January 2011, he stated:

It was like I was making up for lost time – not that I had to catch up, but it was as though I couldn’t quite believe this world of storytelling I had found and I wanted to get as much of it down me as I possibly could.

In 2013 he was included in the Granta list of 20 best young British writers.

Sahota’s first novel, Ours are the Streets, was published in January 2011 by Picador. He wrote the book in the evenings and at weekends because of his day job. The novel tells the story of a British Pakistani youth who becomes a suicide bomber. His second novel, The Year of the Runaways, about the experience of illegal immigrants in Britain, was published in June 2015.