The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota, is the best novel to date of 2016, and may well end up as one of the year’s finest. Sahota, an Indian man living in Sheffield, England, follows the lives of four young Indians from the Punjab, all of whom come to England (by methods most reminiscent of so many Syrians escaping that war zone right now), to find work, to redeem a family/family name, to escape the ‘untouchable’ caste system, the bottom of the heap in a country , India, that claims to have rid itself of castes, but where they still exist. We readers get the backstory of each of the young men (three) and one young woman, who already lives in Sheffield, but who decides to marry one of these young men to give him a work visa into England for reasons that evolve over the course of this splendid novel. The book’s epic in scope, yet microcosmic in detail, and it’s the truly rare novel that allows us to get into the minds of each of these young people on a regular basis. In spite of recent attempts by those promoting diversity, it’s still often difficult for us to fully understand The Other, and Sahota’s greatest strength is delineating character, so that we really do, for a change, understand the humanness of each of these hopeful, often desperate, young people (they’re all in their late teens or early twenties).
We Americans are less inclined to a sense of duty towards family than Asians and Africans tend to be, so that a young man whose family may have lost or be losing its small plot of land or family business for any number of reasons, often feels compelled to go live abroad with the hope and promise of working hard and sending money back home to support the family, particularly the women, who aren’t allowed to work, in this case, in India. Marriages of sisters may well also be at stake, so the burden of survival and prosperity rests on these men’s abilities to earn money to send home. The brutality of the working environment in London, particularly where virtually no jobs exist for the natives, if you will, is brilliantly delineated throughout this novel. It’s deeply moving to read about the budding friendship between two of these young men, who try to stay together, live and work together, in the most brutal England, nearly Dickensian in its awfulness. And the worst people to these young, usually illegal Indians, are those Indians who’ve gotten there before them, and had to struggle the same way the next young men have to; sympathy and empathy are almost non-existent, and Sahota does a superior job of letting us see into the minds of people afraid of all authority, afraid to go to a doctor when truly ill for fear of deportation, and the like.
And some of the jobs, like working in the sewers of English cities, are described in nearly journalistic terms; we often feel that these men are working in the pit of hell. And money’s always tight, housing tenuous, food often scarce, and, of course, some of these men will turn against one another, others will steal from each other, and the like.
The plight of the young Indian Englishwoman is different and differently fascinating: she comes from a comfortable middle-class family, a very religious one, and has been doing volunteer work in England and in India while she awaits her father’s finding a husband for her. Her transformation from completely dutiful daughter, to a woman of doubt and liberation, will occur through knowing all three of the young men (one of whom is her husband in name only). Her reasons for chosing to be a bride to help one man become a legal in England are complex and brilliantly rendered by Sahota. (We are also privy to the stringent class systems of Indians in England, too). No room exists for emotional or psychological comfort, but each of the men will, here and there, let an emotion or feeling slip out, and because of the rarity of these moments, the impact on the reader is that much the greater. And we find empathy for each of the men, partly because we know their stories from home, and partly because of the detail with which Sahota renders their lives and thoughts, their desperation and dashed hopes.
Sunjeev Sahota is both a realist and something of a romantic; he seems to pick up from the likes of Victor Hugo, Balzac, and the French of the era of their Revolution. The sweep of this novel is both macrocosmic and microcosmic; the writing is clear as a bell, smooth as can be, and completely riveting. For those of us accused of what was once euphemistically called “compassion overload”, and for those of us indifferent to the plights of millions of emigrants world-wide, reading The Year of the Runaways will not only remind you of our shared humanness, but will shame you into caring about others and The Other. This novel is flawlessly brilliant, compelling and magnificent.