The Year of the Runaways is a very timely novel depicting the lives of Indian immigrants and the dynamics which force people into risking their lives to travel to an alien society.
Sahota carefully conveys the alien nature of English society. He frequently uses Punjabi words and phrases, which will have the diligent reader researching, but also serves to highlight the difficulties of working outside of one’s native language.
The novel moves effortlessly from India to England, most notably Sheffield. The way Sahota moves from one story line to another is well handled, allowing Sahota to build tension throughout the novel, which is sometimes released to shocking effect.
It also allows for class comparison — the difficulties faced by Randeep, the son of a bureaucrat, pale next to those of Avtar, the son of a bankrupt shopkeeper.
The plot moves backwards and forwards through time. Brilliantly, Sahota uses this to retrospectively develop his characters and consequently the reader falls in and out of sympathy with the protagonists.
Sahota handles the narratives of the central characters and the prose in a manner which at first seems simple, but as the novel develops, it becomes clear that underlying the simplicity are sophisticated nuances.
The reader is left with the realisation that solidarity is not an automatic consequence of privation. And the one driving force for this lack of solidarity is the need for money — money to send home, money for the visa, money for the loan sharks…
Indeed, many of the characters’ emotions are stripped away and shown to be about money. Bullies and thieves are everywhere in this book. And most of them rely on socialised acceptance of this to operate. So illegal immigration is industrialised.
It’s as easy as organising and paying for a fake wife for one; it’s as easy as giving up an internal organ for another.
As Avtar notes, “He could feel the threat, because he knew that the rich were the kind of people who find fault with the pet and not the leash.”
But there are other driving forces as well. Narinder, for instance, has more than simple poverty to escape. But in the attempt she unwittingly finds herself in a precarious position.
The book is divided into seasons culminating with autumn, thus leaving the reader knowing that another winter is coming.
One fact that shines out from the pages of this novel is that migration is inevitable and justifiable.
Some of the characters are fleeing horrific oppression, some grinding poverty, one his own dreadful actions.
They all gain a realisation, in one way or another, that escaping immediate circumstances is not enough. India peruses them emotionally, physically and financially. And England is just as much about being bullied for money as anywhere.