Edna O’Brien once complained, “There is hardly any distinction between a writer and a journalist – indeed most writers are journalists.” I couldn’t help thinking of this as I read The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, one of the books shortlisted for the Booker this year. This is a closely-observed account of the lives of young Indian men trying to make a life for themselves in Britain, working illegally in the guise of students, contracting fake marriages to qualify for a visa, being exploited by employers without conscience, and living in conditions that would break anyone’s spirit. It is, of course, a comment on the dog-eat-dog culture of modern Britain and the cruel caste system of India. There’s no doubt that it’s a realistic picture of the lives of illegal Indian immigrants to Britain, and we do sympathise with the young men who are its subject.
But it’s a fact that should be universally acknowledged, though it isn’t, that serious material, moving material, doesn’t make a great novel. The Year of the Runaways is interesting in the way that a documentary is interesting; but there’s no transformation through exceptional skill in the writing or psychological depth of characterisation. That’s what makes it so surprising to me that it made it to the Man Booker shortlist.
It’s a big, generous, social-realist novel about young Indians escaping the subcontinent for a perilous existence in Sheffield, trying to wrangle a new life in Britain through student visas and sham marriages, or taking a life-or-death risk with people smugglers, says The Guardian’s article on the shortlist. Yes, it is, but its interest depends entirely on those themes and not their handling.
The young men, Randeep, Avdar and Tochi (Tarlochan), are representative of aspects of modern India. The early part of the book, after showing us the three at work in Britain, tells us the individual stories that have brought them there. Middle-class Randeep’s government-employed father has had a nervous breakdown and he finds himself carrying the burden of his entire family, who face destitution if the father cannot work; Avdar, a struggling shopkeeper’s son, needs to earn some money if he is to marry his middle-class girlfriend (Randeep’s sister); and the Untouchable Tarlochan has lost his entire family in a caste-based massacre. Randeep has contracted a fake marriage with Narinder, a British girl whose Sikh faith inspires her to help him gain residency in Britain; Randeep hopes Narinder will come to feel something more for him, but it is Tarlochan she falls in love with.
Hammering us with the details of the characters’ experiences, as Sahota does, doesn’t convey their inner life. Their ages and backgrounds apart, Randeep and Avdar are almost indistinguishable from each other, and even the stronger, darker character Tarlochan is largely defined by the cruelty and injustice of the treatment of Untouchables. Narinder is the character with most light and shade, but it was not clear to me what we are to make of the change in her, other than the way it plays into the general theme of loss of innocence as the young characters learn the price of their naïve dreams of life in Britain – as we always know they will, pretty much in the way it turns out in the book.
Sahota’s prose is workmanlike, often pedestrian:
At lunchtime, they found their backpacks and joined the others sitting astride a large tunnel of aluminium tubing, newly exposed for the dig. Beside them, a tarpaulin acted as a windbreak. They slid off their helmets. Their hair was sopping.
Afterwards one or two turned up their collars and sank into a sleep. The rest decided on a cricket match to stay warm. They found a plank of wood for a bat and several had tennis balls handy. They divided into Sikhs and Muslins, three overs each. Gurpreet elected himself captain and won the toss. He put the Muslims in to bat.
There’s a lot of writing like this; it’s as if Sahota has decided that realism demands minute attention to detail, no matter how uninteresting the detail. Yes, the lives of the young men are a grind, often boring, repetitive and exhausting, but the detailing of it puts a serious drag on the book’s momentum.
The narrative reels out a series of events that earnestly demonstrate different angles of the illegal immigrant problem: the dodgy employers, the swaggering British-born Indian thugs who act as standover men, the apparently sympathetic Indian shopkeepers who like and trust Tochi and then turn feral when they realise he’s an Untouchable, the difficulty of getting medical care when you live in fear of deportation. I come back to Edna O’Brien’s comment. Sahota is not a bad writer, and his story is a strong one in terms of human interest. It’s a perfectly OK read. But shouldn’t a novel be more than a group of moving stories, relevant to the problems of our time, bolted together into a narrative? Shouldn’t the whole be more than the sum of the parts? What exactly it is that makes a novel more than the sum of the parts is the question; but you recognise it when you see it. I didn’t find it here. If it wins the Booker it will be further evidence of the fashion for social-realist books in which what you write about is more important than how you write. On the other hand, on the shortlist is the avant-garde Satin Island (Tom McCarthy).
Surprise has been expressed in many quarters that Marilynne Robinson’s Lila didn’t make the final 6 and that Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was preferred to Anne Enright’s The Green Road. Here’s The Guardian’s article: