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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Review: The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota

There are many reasons why people read books. To learn; to be provoked; to be moved; but overwhelming, I'm guessing most would say to escape. The Year of the Runaways gives you everything but escapism.

This novel blends political and personal drama in epic, sweeping scale. It weaves together the stories of three men and one woman; Tochi, Avtar, Randeep and Narinder. Tochi, Avtar and Randeep decide to move to the UK. Their backgrounds are very different but their goal is the same - work, and thus, better prospects for their families. Tochi enters the UK illegally; Avtar, through a student visa and Randeep through a visa-wife - this is where Narinder comes in. From building sites to chip shops and cash and carrys, the men's lives become an endless cycle of finding work, to a short job, to finding work again. And they're not alone. They compete with many men already ahead of them. A lot of the British citizens of Indian descent, they first contacts, are sympathetic if not overly helpful.

Tochi, by account of his caste status, is the hardest and most closed off. His entire life has been one of survival in a way that not even Avtar or Randeep can understand, and when they try to reach out to him he rebuffs them. Yet Avtar sold one of his kidneys to get to the UK and even that wasn't enough - he is in the mercy of a ruthless loan shark. Randeep perhaps has the easiest time of it - if this situation could ever be described as easy - as Narinder is willing to be his wife for a year, at which point they can divorce and he can get citizenship. All they have to do is fool immigration services.

In many ways it is a deeply uncomfortable read, not least when it slaps you in the face with a lot of the things we take for granted. A while ago, I was visiting my family's and I needed to make a doctor's visit. Upon entering the surgery all I needed to do was fill in my details as a visiting patient, including the doctors at which I was permanently registered. Imagine, then, Avtar, in the country on a student visa, no actual fixed address although his course is in London, having to visit a doctor's surgery in Sheffield, and being asked to fill in one of these visiting patient's forms.

This novel isn't passing judgement on whether illegal - or barely legal - immigration is right or wrong, and it doesn't really ask the reader to do that, either. Rather, it asks for compassion and understanding as to why there are so many who are desperate to reach not only the UK but countries in the Western World which they think will enable their families to have a much better future. The depressing thing is that the bubble quickly bursts for so many - although Avtar, Randeep, Tochi and Narinder find peace in their own ways, albeit after a hellish year.

What I've commented on is only a tiny part of the story. Their background stories are immensely gripping and heartbreaking, and you get the sense that they seize the chance to run away rather than just use the excuse of their families for whom they want to achieve more.

This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Its timing is perfect, really - at a time in history when, despite having the means to be the most open and enlightened, vast swathes of society - through fear, ignorance, or prejudice - feel the need to close their doors, this kind of story reminds us that we are all human and we are all fighting for our place in the world.