Granta magazine tapped Sunjeev Sahota as one of the 20 best young writers of the decade, and his new novel, “The Year of the Runaways,” was shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize, and yet it’s only now reaching the United States. That seems like an intolerable delay for such a celebrated book, but America’s fresh spasm of xenophobia makes this devastating story about the plight of immigrants all the more relevant right now.
“The Year of the Runaways” is essentially “The Grapes of Wrath” for the 21st century: the Joads’ ordeal stretched halfway around the planet, from India to England. By following a handful of young men, Sahota has captured the plight of millions of desperate people struggling to find work, to eke out some semblance of a decent life in a world increasingly closed-fisted and mean. If you’re willing to have your vague impressions of the dispossessed brought into scarifying focus, read this novel.
Set in 2003, the narrative shifts freely through the experiences of three Indians who have left their families behind, slipped into England and settled uneasily in Sheffield. Randeep has secured the assistance of a devout young woman willing to be his wife until he gets his visa. Tochi hopes to escape the violence that destroyed his family and left him physically and emotionally burned. And Avtar arrives on a student visa, full of the same green dreams his new roommates hold: “He was to concentrate on making something of himself in England now God had blessed him with this opportunity,” Sahota writes. “To that end, Avtar allowed himself a little optimism. The trains had come when the electronic signs had said they would. The guard hadn’t expected money to point him in the right direction. Cars were only driven on roads and only in nice long columns. Even the air was a clear and uniform blue. All the signs of a well-run country. A fair country. A country that helps its people. A country that might even help him.”
Drawn to the West by the promise of jobs, these men quickly feel their optimism shredded by England’s economic malaise. Having escaped India’s ancient caste system, they discover an equally rigid system in their new, supposedly liberal home. The novel’s continuous chorus never wavers: “Do you have any work?” “Have you heard of any jobs?” And it’s not that Randeep, Avtar and Tochi are picky. They’re willing to do anything, take any risk, suffer any indignity for the most meager wage. They clean sewers without protective gear; they break their backs on construction projects. They’re exploited by capricious bosses and enslaved by felonious employers, but there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around — or even enough organs to sell off.
Born and raised in Britain, Sahota sinks deep into these men’s lives in India and in England as they depend on one another and compete against each other. “I’ll come back a rich man who can choose his own life,” Tochi claims. But the immensity of what he’s taken on is almost too vast to bear. “He put his head in his hands and it took a few minutes to recall the name of this place he was now in. He just had to work, he told himself. Keep working, keep earning, and he’d get there, wherever there was.”
Even while starving and dodging loan sharks and immigration officials, they must feed their families back home a steady diet of lies about their success, their newfound wealth, their good lives in the West. It’s a relentless, absorbing series of missteps, smothered dreams and humiliations. Late in the novel when Randeep says, “I never thought it would be like this,” we’re already in shock.
And in the center of these desperate young men stands Randeep’s “visa wife,” Narinder, living in a grungy apartment decorated with a sprinkling of fake photos of marital bliss. Driven by guilt and inspired by altruism, Narinder, a devout Sikh, serves as the novel’s moral core, struggling to reconcile the infinite demands of her faith with the chauvinistic requirements of her family. Sahota draws her with such fidelity to the purity of her vision and the anguish that idealism causes her: “Real goodness, she now understood, wasn’t chopping vegetables in the canteen or distributing blankets. It was what her gurus had all done. It was putting yourself at risk for other people. It was doing the things that others wouldn’t do. It was sacrifice.” But in the world in which she lives, Narinder doesn’t control the reins of her own life enough to sacrifice it.
How easy it would be to cradle these characters in mawkish sympathy or spike these pages with political outrage. But Sahota succumbs to neither temptation in this novel, which has been shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. As a narrator, Sahota is the invisible man, never intruding with an appraisal or even an explanation of the Indian words sprinkled through the text. And he’s just as disciplined about letting his characters exist in their own telling silences.
We know — from Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck — how such a monumental social novel should work. But the great marvel of this book is its absolute refusal to grasp at anything larger than the hopes and humiliations of these few marginal people. With that tight focus, the story’s critique of inequality, racism and economic slavery remains entirely implicit, but no less devastating. Instead of speed, it offers precision, gathering small morsels of spoiled hope until the story’s momentum feels absolutely overwhelming.
“Who would be a man,” one of these young men wonders, “in a world like this.” That’s a question each of us needs to answer as we think about building higher, longer walls. Unfortunately, every year feels like the year of the runaways.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Sunjeev Sahota
Knopf. 484 pp. $27.95