Very late in Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, Avtar, a young Indian man whose preceding twelve months of illegal work and dodging immigration officials in England we have followed for more than four hundred pages, calls home.
He could see her frowning. “Anyway, what have you been up to? Anything fun?”
He opened his mouth but no words came out. He had nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to her. (p. 436)
If it aims for anything, The Year of the Runaways intends to ensure that, were we on the other end of the telephone line to Avtar, he would be able to share – and we would be able to understand. It is as evocative, engaging, and convincing a depiction of the immigrant experience as I have read. By this, I mean it is not about second- or third-generation communities seeking fused identities, as in Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and that likewise it is not a piece of over-dramatised pedagogy like Rose Tremain’s worthy but thickly-egged The Road Home. It most reminds me of the sections in NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in which its protagonist arrives and begins to build a life in America; but Sahota’s characters are adults, not children, and each of them is stressing not the need for assimilation but the temporary nature of their arrangements: stay a few years, earn a lot of money; marry an Indian man so he can gain a visa, and do good by sacrificing just a year of matrimony.
Of course, these best laid plans go inevitably awry: the student finds it difficult to pass his exams, and thus retain his visa, whilst also working the two jobs he needs to barely pay off the loan sharks who funded his transit from India; the British-born wife realises all too quickly that “just a year” is time enough for everything to change; and still others, such as the high-caste Randeep, with whose sister Avtar is in love, have as the end-point of their endeavour residency in Britain – and the opportunity permanently to bring their families with them.
All this takes place in 2003, when marriage and student visas were easier to come by; but the variegated humanity of so-called “economic migrants” is of acute current interest. Randeep is mockingly referred to as “prince” by other denizens of the packed house he and Avtar share with nine other illegal workers at the novel’s opening; he will eventually become homeless, and be turned away from a gurdwara that might once have coveted his place in their congregation. Another of the house’s residents, Tochi, is of a low caste – whenever his attempts to hide his roots fail he is failingly ejected from Indian communities both immigrant and British-born – and yet makes far more money, is a cannier earner and saver, than the more middling – and more widely accepted – student, Avtar. In this way, the reader is shown how the immigrant experience can be flattening – it forces all who go through it into certain shapes, regardless of their past experiences or positions; but also, and most importantly, the novel stresses the characters’ continuity of personality and perception: that is, it teaches us to consider the immigrant’s individuality whilst also emphasising the degrading competition in which they are engaged. In a year in which the British press has dealt up dehumanising copy by the column-foot, this is a timely literary effort.
The novel’s key theme is duty. Very early on, Randeep and Avtar discuss what drove them to leave their native country:
“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.” (p. 7)
From Randeep’s duty to his family to Avtar’s to his creditors; from the religious piety of Narinder, Randeep’s visa wife to Tochi’s orphaned responsibility to himself, The Year of the Runaways breaks down each character’s set of obligations and forces upon each unpalatable choices. No individual emerges from the impossible dilemmas they are set, and even good intentions have little chance of turning out for the better – Narinder’s choice to marry Randeep is powered by a previous refusal to marry another Indian migrant, who was later found dead on the side of a Russian road, and yet things do not go well for either of them. The novel describes a series of practical challenges requiring utilitarian solutions – and doesn’t pretend that anything is perfect.
Indeed, The Year of the Runaways rather insists on the unsatisfactory nature of any response to the complex factors that drive migration and the black and grey economies which depend on it. It is the reader’s duty, indeed, to come to understand this – to empathise with and advocate for individuals simply trying to make a good fist of slim hands. This is a novel with modest hopes. “Happiness is a pretty precarious state, Randeep,” Narinder says in the perhaps too-neat epilogue. “I’m content. That’s more than enough. That’s more than most.” (p. 462)
If the national – indeed, international – conversation around migrants and migration were of a higher quality, we might not need a novel like this. As it is, a call to understand migrants on their own terms is a radical enough thing to do, and The Year of the Runaways – well researched, delicately written and humane – feels like an important novel. It has a breadth of emotional vision, an imagination, that lends it a calm wisdom. On the other hand, it is almost quaintly straight-forward – its twelve-month structure split into four seasonal parts, no less – and feels almost old-fashioned in its strict third person limited style, its linear narrative with its polite flashbacks, and its social realist perspective. Its interest arises from its complicated ethics and its refusal to talk down to its readers (there are no translations of its frequent Punjabi phrases, for example). But I can’t help but feel that its place on the Booker shortlist is as much an expression of how bad our novels and our nation have been at talking about the things this novel talks about as it is of its considerable, but often conventional, qualities.