Sunjeev Sahota

I have mixed feelings about The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. I found it bleak, depressing, with very little that could be considered uplifting.

The novel tells the story of a group of runaways from India who come from different backgrounds, castes, and socio-economic status and whose paths cross in Sheffield, England. The opening chapters thrust us into their squalid lives in Sheffield where they have come in search of employment. They struggle at working in a construction site; live in appalling, dehumanizing conditions; experience cruelty and exploitation; and are in constant fear of being captured and deported.  The characters are desperately poor. A portion of what little money they earn has to be sent home to support their families in India.

We are then taken back in time to reveal the tragic and violent circumstances that drove each to leave home, family, and country (in short, all that is familiar) to embark to an unfamiliar land in search of a better life.

As the story progresses, their situation deteriorates. They sleep on the streets and under bridges, eat whatever scraps they can find, compete for the same meager, low-paying jobs, and steal. It is all pretty bleak. Sahota narrates their horrific experiences in a very matter-of-fact, almost pedantic style. He peppers the writing with Punjabi and Sikh words or phrases that are unintelligible to a non-native speaker.

Having immersed his characters in squalid and desperate circumstances and just as they reach the point where the little they have begins to unravel, Sahota leaps ten years forward where the characters are now leading middle class lives with no explanation as to how they managed to do this.

This is not a "feel good" book. But in spite of some of its drawbacks, it is an important book since it increases our understanding and, hopefully, our compassion for the desperate plight some immigrants experience in their home countries and in their adopted ones. 

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review