I really enjoyed The Year of the Runaways. It is just, simply, a good book, an enjoyable story and interesting characters.
It follows the lives of four separate individuals, three of whom are recent migrants from India. Randeep is from a relatively wealthy family, studying at university and with a father who works for the Government – until his father’s mental illness causes things to come tumbling down around his family. He enters the UK on a marriage visa. Avtar is from a poorer family, trying desperately to find work in India and to earn enough money to marry his girlfriend, Randeep’s sister. Tochi is a chamaar, one of the Untouchable castes in India, who suffers horrendously in caste-based riots and ends up travelling to the UK in the back of a van as an illegal immigrant. And then there is Parminder, Randeep’s wife, a young woman from a British Asian family. She is engaged to be married (an arranged marriage) and is a devout Sikh – however, she feels that she needs to be doing something to help the poor and dispossessed, and so runs away from her family for what is meant to be a year in order to enter into this sham marriage to allow Randeep to gain indefinite leave to remain.
As you perhaps can tell, I found Parminder’s character the hardest to get to grips with for much of the book – I just could not get my head around her motivations. Perhaps as a non-religious person I was unable to understand the depth of this self-sacrifice – leaving everyone you love behind, bringing shame on your father whom you love deeply and living for a year entirely by yourself, locked away in a dingy flat with no human company. By the end of the novel, however, I began to understand Parminder more – as she finds a job and begins to make friends I found I could understand the desire to have a greater freedom than she could at home within her devout family.
The book opens with Tochi’s arrival into a house in Sheffield crammed full of migrants from the Asian subcontinent, most with a slightly dodgy immigration status, working in the black market. From its opening, the novel then looks backwards at each character, taking the reader into their life in India – poverty, mental illness, love, riots, violent death. In following their individual stories it presents a human face to the migrants we in Britain are constantly reading about, and in depicting their lives in Sheffield it shows a completely different world to the one I inhabit – a world of exploitation, hunger, fear, violence and desperation – to find a job at any cost, not to fail, to pay off the loan sharks who are threatening violence on your family back home. The characters are so well-drawn that you can’t help being drawn into their world.
It is a very topical novel, of course, with increased globalisation and violence across the world, Europe is facing the oft-quoted “migrant crisis”, with many in the UK looking anxiously across the channel to the Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, afraid of those who might be about to make the journey to the UK. The media talks of “migrants” rather than “asylum seeker” and the lines become blurred. Here, Sahota takes three migrants – there is no question whatsoever that they may be escaping war in Syria, or Somalia, or escaping ISIS. They are clearly economic migrants coming to the UK illegally, and Sahota makes no excuses for that, or no effort to hide it. The topicality of it means that this book has been presented as a political novel, but Sahota has said that “he never set out to write any particular kind of novel, or for the work to have any sort of rationale. My main wish was only to write a novel that felt alive and might enthral the reader“.
And to me, it did just that. See it as a political story if you must, but more, enjoy it for being a fantastic, character-driven novel spanning the UK and India, deeply engrossing and enjoyable.