The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador)

Runaways“Randeep Sanghera stood in front of the green-and-blue map tacked on the wall. The map had come with the flat, and though it was big and wrinkled, and cigarette butts had once stubbed black islands into the mid Atlantic, he’d kept it, a reminder of the world outside.”

Picador might have popped a few easy to translate phrases in the front of this book, but to get you started: Gurdwara is a Sikh place of worship; chunni is the long scarf women wear around their head and shoulders, charmaars (which my spell check keeps wanting to change unfortunately to charmers) are leather workers and hence of low caste in Hindi eyes where the cow is sacred.

Sahota uses this vernacular to create atmosphere and a cultural barrier. His  story is about immigration, timely perhaps, but not, perhaps, about assimilation. He balances both sides from India and England;  four journeys loosely intertwined,  each ducking under the shredded, discredited red tape of UK immigration law and taking different avenues.

We are in the harsh shadowlands of the newly arrived, the newly hopeful. Caught in the abandonment of old friends (Commonwealth) for new friends (Europe). There are riots in Bihar, a plane to Turkey, a truck to unfriendly Paris and then the back of a tomato lorry to Southall. Marriage is arranged.  Eventually one emotes: “what decadence this belonging was…”

Sahota is skilful with the what, why, where, and when, which is more than can be said for his characters who are flotsam in different ways, victims of their duty. All they want is a job. Any job. Money, to send home, to get home. They carry their culture on their backs like snails. There is a telling, chilling bit where they encounter first generation immigrant cousins who tell them to stop staring…at everything.

Sahota keeps his nerve and the sentimentality to a minimum, expectations are more informed by where they came from than where they are going, which just makes the reader more fearful for them.

The shock and charm is underlined using an essentially English style of story telling to apply to non English values. It is an accomplished work of novel making that has earned it a short listing for the Man Booker 2015, albeit judges might have preferred something more predictably gin and Raj but it affirms and stirs many a prejudice.

 

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About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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