Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel, The Year of the Runaways, has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker prize and has received largely positive reviews—praising the author’s ability to make more human the larger, urgent political questions that are asked daily on the news.
The novel focuses on three Indian men—Randeep, Avtar and Tochi (Tarlochan)—who are representative of modern India, and Navinder, a Indian-British woman who offers the only glimmer of light and softness in Sahota’s dark, heavy narrative.
The Year of the Runaways is a keenly observed account of young men trying to make it in Britain—working illegally; becoming involved in fake marriages in an attempt to gain a visa; all the while trying to maintain an upbeat attitude and stay positive about the future. At times this seems impossible: awful living and working conditions mean tensions are as frayed as one would expect in a Sheffield house where a dozen or more young men suffer from lack of sleep and food.
Sahota plays with his chronology, shifting from past to future and back again as we learn the histories of our characters and the sacrifices they have all made to try secure a better life for them and their families. This information offers an extra layer to an otherwise pedestrian narrative; the prose at times seems dull and workmanlike, as paragraphs and pages drag on with descriptions of job-searching and the characters’ difficulties finding food and sometimes a place to live.
It may sound cold, but Sahota didn’t move me enough; I was often left feeling largely disappointed that I couldn’t invest enough in Randeep, Avtar, Tochi and Navinder’s lives. Of course, the overarching themes—immigration; the naïve dreams of young individuals coming from war-torn countries hoping to find a better life in Britain—are perhaps more important than ever before, and warrant discussion. Yet Sahota’s novel just doesn’t quite do it for me.
The novel had its moments: the way in which Tochi calmly discusses with Navinder his reasons for being in Britain, despite the horrors—like so many others—he has suffered, packed an emotional punch. Yet as the novel wound towards its rushed “let’s try tie this all up quickly” epilogue—which disappointed in its neatness—I found myself increasingly uninterested in how things would turn out.
It’s not difficult to see why The Year of the Runaways made the 2015 Man Booker shortlist—for its big political questions and important themes—but this one just wasn’t for me. Call me heartless—but I expected Sahota to deliver more.