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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is very topical, dealing with the lives of illegal and semi-legal migrants to the UK. But topicality does not guarantee that a novel is any good.

 

In this novel, Sahota introduces us to a number of Indian migrants who have ended up in Sheffield and London. Principally, we follow Randeep, Avtar and Tochi as they embark on a new life. Avtar is on a student visa but has no intention of studying; Tochi arrived hidden in a lorry, and Randeep has hit the jackpot with a marriage of convenience to Narinder, a British woman of Indian heritage. They struggle to find slave-labour work, they and their families are laden with debt, and generally life is a whole lot harder than they imagined.

On the positive side, Sahota gives a humanity to these hidden migrants. They are individuals rather than part of some generic swarm. We see their back stories in India; we see the impact of the caste system and how far it restricts social mobility – preventing movement upwards but also burdening high caste Indians with expectations they cannot always fulfil. We see the fine line between ambition to work, and the temptation (and even need) to lie, steal and cheat. We see the confusion that can arise from misunderstanding a strange culture and fear of exposing oneself by trying to resolve those misunderstandings.

But on a heavy negative side, we find a novel that is clumsily structured and whose execution does not match its ambition. Having established the cast in the opening pages, we find ourselves spending a good half of the novel back in India telling four separate back stories (those of our three heroes and Narinder). These are way too long, don’t have proper links to the main novel or to one another, and just sit like undigestable lumps. They break all sense of narrative drive and confuse as much as they illuminate. It makes the novel feel like a real slog, and when you get to 60% on your Kindle and you’re still dealing with the background, you wonder whether there is even going to be a foreground at all. It might have been preferable for the back stories to have been shorter and, perhaps, dripfed into the main narrative.

A further problem is that: the characters are insufficiently distinctive. They take it in turns to be the bad guy, the voice of reason, the desperate, and the pious. They don’t behave consistently from one scene to the next; they don’t seem to have much logic behind the decisions they take. There are also a slew of supporting characters, most of whom seem to be nothing more than their actions. If the story requires someone to be daring, a side character will pop up to be daring. If the story requires someone to know something, up will pop a character to know it. For a novel that tries to show migrants as individuals, it is a bit disappointing that they all seem so interchangeable.

If the men are indistinguishable, Narinder is simply not believable. She has an over-bearing father; an over-protective brother, yet she seems to traipse off to India at will, hanging around with whomever she pleases and engaging in a series of relationships in plain sight – yet her family never notices. The explanation for her offering herself as a bride of convenience is not plausible and her method of going about it seems to fly in the face of her supposed motivation. She zips between strength and victimhood; independence and beholdenness with dizzying speed.

A further irritation – and this is a common failing of Indian themed books (Amitav Ghosh comes to mind) – is the constant dropping of Indian words into the text. Not once or twice, but several times a paragraph. Perhaps this is intended to remind us that the characters may not be speaking in English, but it does render much of the descriptive narrative pointless. This might be compared with The Fishermen (also Booker shortlisted in 2015) where the few Nigerian words deemed necessary are translated or explained.

By the end, a sort of story has started to emerge. Even then, it is pretty loose, proceeds at glacial pace despite frenetic travel between various English cities. Multiple strands seem to fly off (in slow motion) but never land. This all leads up to an epilogue which, in too many pages, tells us that they all lived happily ever after – whilst not addressing the cliff-hangers at the end of the story proper. It’s deeply unsatisfying.

As in his previous novel: Ours Are The Streets, Sunjeev Sahota has taken an important and interesting subject matter but not quite made it work. This could have been insightful and moving. Instead it feels clunky and sterile.

 

***00

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