The Year of the Runaways
Church Times Bookshop £13.40
ONE of the questions that a novelist faces is how much to tell the reader. Do we need to know the colour of a character’s hair, or the furniture in a room, or the state of the weather? At times, whole cities can be dealt with in a sentence; at others, the precise movements of a leaf are crucial.
In the opening pages of The Year of the Runaways, Sunjeev Sahota tells us about a poster map of the world, with cigarette holes burnt in it. This detail evokes the entire world of the four runaways of the title: dreams of redemptive journeys and stubbed-out endings.
The Britain that Sahota evokes is a world away from the one that most of us inhabit. This is “immigration Britain”, with survival wages in the shadow economy, building sites, prostitutes operating in garden sheds, fried-chicken joints, and sewer cleaning. In this Britain, there are no red pillar-boxes, and very few white people at all.
It is this country that becomes home to three Indian men who arrive, illegally and legally, in search of work, and a solution to the problems left behind at home. The fourth runaway is Narinder, a middle-class British Sikh girl locked into a world of religious duty and family honour.
Sentences such as this — “The yellow Buddha in its restaurant window looked sinister and on the other side of the road a man shouted at a cashpoint” — provide just enough detail for us to build this appalling version of Britain in our minds. The result is at the same time strange and recognisable, like somewhere we know but would rather ignore.
Without ever giving us a lecture, or even a hint of social commentary, Sahota manages to write a biting social novel that is expert at cataloguing cruelty. This is social and economic cruelty, where there are victims but few obvious villains. In this way, Sahota avoids crude allocations of blame: morality is complex, layered, and often intractable.
Sahota leaves us to ponder whether Narinder’s father is more cruel for expecting her to uphold his honour, or whether Narinder is more cruel in disgracing her father by running away to follow her naïve ideas of religious duty.
But Sahota leaves us in no doubt that the caste system is both cruel and responsible for endless human miseries. Equally merci-less are the economic and social conditions of the runaways in Britain. Sahota never asks who is responsible for “immigration Britain”: he simply lays it out, and leaves us to consider the questions of blame and accountability
Sahota follows with deep compassion, and without judgment, the separate stories of each main character. This compassion is infectious, and we soon find ourselves caring deeply about them, often caring equally for those poised on opposite sides of a moral dilemma.
I wondered whether Sahota would be able to draw these stories to a satisfying conclusion. I was not disappointed with the ending, which was as accomplished as everything else in this brilliant work of fiction.
The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is a co-founder of the charity IntoUniversity.