(Book Review) The Year of the Runaways by Sanjeev Sahota

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

runawaysAt one point during The Year of the Runaways, Sanjeev Sahota’s 2015 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, a female character remarks, “who would be a man in a world like this?”, which would function as a very effective subtitle to the whole book. Indeed, if anyone decides to adapt The Year of the Runaways into a musical, they’ll need to compose a pivotal number entitled Who Would Be a Man (In a World Like This)?, with repeated refrains and muscular choreography. There’s a tangibly tortured masculinity at the root of so much of Sahota’s novel that it essentially becomes a study of what it means to be a man. For Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi, the three male protagonists, life has been a series of imposed expectations and demands: the expectations of mothers, fathers, siblings, religious authorities, romantic interests, and, essentially, society as a whole. Men must provide; men must protect; men must not dare to pursue their own ambitions or dreams; above all else, men must be men.

The Year of the Runaways focuses its attention on Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi as they leave India to seek a better, more prosperous life in England. The novel presents migration to Europe as the ideal; India is repeatedly declaimed as a place in which there can be no future for young men like Sahota’s protagonists. Although each makes the journey to England for his own reasons, what unites them is a sense of family and duty, an unerring and ingrained belief that they must make a better life for themselves in order to provide a better life for their loved ones. In the current political climate of migration, which continues to dominate news cycles here in the UK, Sahota’s sympathetic account of economic migration as a narrative of survival is timely and compelling.

“This life. It makes everything a competition. A fight. For work, for money. There’s no peace. Ever. Just fighting for the next job. Fight fight fight. And it doesn’t matter how much stronger than everyone else you are, there’s always a fucking chamaar you have to share the work with, or a rich boy who can afford a wife.” – page 225

Although the young men and their tormented male existences dominate the first half of the novel, the second half belongs to Narinder, Randeep’s “visa bride.” Initially demure, nervous, and enigmatic, Narinder’s character blossoms as it gains depth. Her motivations and actions do not always seem to entirely add up, but her story is certainly a fascinating and unique one. The Year of the Runaways is a fairly weighty book, in every sense, and although Narinder adds little lightheartedness to proceedings, her perspective balances out the neurotic masculinity of the early chapters. Like the male protagonists, Narinder is hamstrung by a seemingly outmoded sense of duty and familial responsibility, but her more rebellious attitude is refreshing. Structurally, Lauren Groff pulls off a similar trick in Fates and Furies, presenting the female character’s perspective only after she has been described in detail through the male gaze. In both novels, it’s a masterstroke, allowing the authors to show just how far these women deviate from how others perceive them.

It must be said that this is a book in which pretty much everyone is unhappy. A large amount of the time, happy characters are only happy because they’ve just made someone else miserable or because they’ve completely misunderstood what’s just happened to them. Sahota paints an undeniably bleak landscape of squats, sheds, and sofas in the back room of takeaway dives. The bulk of the novel takes place in Sheffield, a northern city in which only bad things have ever happened to me (to put this in some perspective, I once nearly got hit by a tram because I wasn’t looking where I was going, and on another occasion a fan of a rival football team shouted at me and I was scared; nobody made me leave my native country to live in an outhouse), with London also featuring in all its depressing, grey glory. Despite all this, The Year of the Runaways somehow manages not to be a depressing read; on reflection, I wonder if this is because the narrative is not entirely convincing. Bad people are depicted with no nuance, while the author very clearly marshals our sympathies in the direction of his central quartet. This is a little problematic in a novel which, otherwise, seems to favour gritty realism.

For me, The Year of the Runaways really came to life after the first few chapters, when Sahota diverted his attention from the present in England to Tochi’s past in India; the tragic circumstances that led to his escape from everything he knew are unmatched by anything else in the novel, and serve to make Tochi a deeply compelling character. He’s rarely pleasant, but what Sahota’s novel seems to point out repeatedly is that being pleasant doesn’t get you anywhere. An aspect of Tochi’s representation which I found particularly compelling was his place in the caste system, occupying the lowest rung of Indian society. This is not something I have read much about in the past, and Sahota uses it effectively to highlight Tochi’s isolation and inherent difference from his fellow Runaways.

On the subject of representing diverse cultures, I don’t know how good your Punjabi is, but it’s worth having a dual-language dictionary at hand when reading The Year of the Runaways. The use of Punjabi obviously adds authenticity, but without a glossary and with even the ever-reliable Google failing to translate words like “chaamar” and one particularly vivid profanity, it’s easy to become a little lost at the outset. I don’t think all these words are self-evident from context and I felt like I was cheating by not understanding every word of the book. I can, however, now swear in Punjabi, so an important life skill has been gained. Another cultural aspect which dominates the book is food. In the same way that you should never attempt grocery shopping on an empty stomach, I strongly advise against reading The Year of the Runaways without a hearty meal inside you, because the frequent references to Indian cuisine will make you hungry.

For a Man Booker shortlisted book, The Year of the Runaways is surprisingly easy to read, as well as engaging. Sahota manages to make his reader care about his characters, even if we don’t always actually like them, and the narrative achieves both scope and intimacy through its focus on a select group of characters, juxtaposed with sprawling geography.

The Year of the Runaways is available now at GPL.

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