Book Review: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

I heard an excerpt from this book on a thought-provoking public radio show - To The Best of Our Knowledge: A Borderless World, which is well worth a listen. I've been thinking about immigration a lot lately, considering the issues, the varied way people respond to them and what can be done to help people who are struggling to escape extreme poverty, violence and oppression. 

Sunjeev Sahota is a British novelist whose paternal grandparents emigrated to Britain from the Punjab in 1966. He was brought up in the British Sikh community and regularly visits extended family in India. So although The Year of the Runaways is a novel, it is grounded in the reality of what Sahota has witnessed both in India and in England.

Here's a synopsis from Goodreads:

The Year of the Runaways tells of the bold dreams and daily struggles of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance. Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the choatic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband's clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call.

I can't honestly say I enjoyed The Year of the Runaways or that I found it fascinating. Those are the wrong words for an exploration of lives lived in situations ranging from unfortunate to brutal hardship where, despite people's best efforts, everything seems to go from bad to worse.

I found this book to be compelling and, for the most part, extremely well written. It gives a much needed picture of the struggle that people go through in poverty-stricken regions of the world like India, the desperate measures they're willing to go to in order to try and better their lives and the bleak reality that many experience if they do manage to make it to a "better" place.

Literature like this forces the reader to examine not only the pre-conceived notions they may have about people in certain circumstances, but also the vast gulf between the privilege that many of us possess and the circumstances of much of the rest of the world. This quote from mid-way through the book spoke to me more strongly than anything else (probably because I've spent way too much time preoccupied with whether or not I "belong" in my family, my friendships, my community):

Avtar returned to his room without asking about the job. He sat on the bed and gave in to his anger. What decadence this belonging rubbish was, what time the rich must have if they could sit around and weave great worries out of such threadbare things.

Although I do appreciate realism in novels, at times the grittiness in The Year of the Runaways was a bit much for me - the language, the violence, the crudeness, the despair. I do understand it's purpose here though and there was so much more to this novel than that. I really enjoyed getting to know Sahota's characters, understanding their motivation, their hopes, their fears, their dreams and their scars. I feel like that's what this world really needs - human beings getting to know and understand their fellow human beings as individuals, not as caricatures of a race, religion, culture or socio-economic status.

SPOILER ALERT: I review the novel's ending below.

I do have to say though, that I was disappointed by the ending. We spent over 400 pages and years of time building up to what turns out to be just some boring suburban existence for most of the characters. How did they get there from the depths that they were in? There's really no explanation. And Avtar seemed like an entirely different person. Where's his drive, to work, to provide, to better himself? It just didn't track for me. 

Despite that, I do really recommend this novel. Although it's long, it certainly held my interest and I found the story to be both thought-provoking and valuable.