Diving into Sahota’s world
I’ve been finding my way towards Sahota for over two years now. Though I was looking out for his other, Booker Prize shortlisted novel, Ours Are The Streets, I was pulled up sharp beside the Library returns shelf by The Year Of The Runaways. Apart from the cover colliding with my autumnal wishes in the later part of a too hot summer, I love any novel that promises a discrete time capsule. Sahota, a Granta Best of Young British Novelists, a British Indian Sikh and a full time writer, talks of his desire to understand both sides of his heritage and is unafraid to tackle the fraught subject of alienation and where this leads.
The Year Of The Runaways is a multi-hued portrait of illegal Indian immigrants in Britain. It discusses the ways in which immigrants leave their homeland and travel abroad seeking the hope of a better life, what motivates them and what realities await them. It connects the two countries as well as the characters through Sikh temples and the role of faith. Faith as both religion, faith as love and faith as the hope for something better than cannot be proven.
In balancing the narrative Sahota ranges across, countries, families and time. The novel is split into seasons and shared out amongst four main characters, Avtar, Randeep, Tochi and Narinder. The ‘year’ of the book is separated out by the slow reveal of the back story of the characters. From the first page there is a sense of bleakness, captured by the lack of communication and patterns of coping behaviour, creating a sense of anticipation and dread. As a reader, you step into the uncomfortable ripples of a puddle. Dipping back into the home life and background of each character deepens that discomfort. The boys are shown first but we are left to wait for Narinder’s back story. She waits in the narrative like a hidden void, slender and potent with impact. Like a well that holds all the waters together. Motivated by faith to act beyond the narrow confines of the life expected of her.
The sense of despair is never moved from but what Sahota does masterfully, rather than just telling us to despair, or showing us the despair, is weave it into the characters through their poor choices or unavoidable actions. Randeep takes almost explicable moral backsteps and the trajectory of his character arc tightens the sense of doom whilst emotionally welding the reader to the other characters whose life he is impinging on. Where there is a chance that Avtar might do better, his connection to Randeep pulls him to make choices you rail against. All the while Narinder is pulled closer to the two whilst Tochi, with the most disturbing back story, lingers like a shadow: disconnected, connecting, severed, fracturing. It is precise and deft storytelling.
There are aspects of the text which reward deeply, I love the fine line of language between cultural knowledge, character creation and reader accessibility. A (white) reader’s challenge to pick up a strange ball, learn in the game. The text enriches linguistically and culturally. I found the intimacy with the Sikh faith a careful rendition of what Sahova knows and the British public perceives. In this novel the scales of both sides are precariously tipping back and forth, teasing with snippets of misconception and truth.
This book gathered me in and wrapped me into the folds of it’s being, tightening and compressing a sense of distress balanced against a whisper of hope. I loved the balance of four MC’s. All of them ebbing and flowing through the text, dragged down by circumstances, occasionally clinging to a floating piece of flotsam before the current grips them again. Sahota’s wide grasp of circumstances facing the Indian community, both here and in the sub-continent, plays out like a brutal Shakespeare play in the background. Informing, distressing, overwhelming the reader. It builds and builds and builds, and then floats out the back door on a final anti-climax like Tochi’s hopes. When Narinder asks ‘who’d be a man?’ Sahota’s response seems to be ‘but who’d be a woman?’ Is Narinder saved from the fate of a wife in this novel or is she denied the final hope of redemption, the return of faith in anyone, in life, in God? I was left in an exhausted slump of baleful acceptance, and what skill this, to capture the final emotion of the final character, wrap it in a chunni and give it to the reader? I could ask no more from a book. Though I love a happy ending, there was no place for it in this book, and that the ending was less bleak than the portent was of deep satisfaction to me.
I will definitely be looking out for Ours Are The Streets and will always welcome a new Sahota book as I do a new John Irving book, the latest dive into a world precisely of their own vision, grounded in compassion and truth.
My rating for The Year Of The Runaways is:
Structure and topic. A Nureyev performance
Set up to pay off. Compassionate precision
Emotional punch. Washed away
My rating system might seem a bit odd, but got to be honest, I couldn’t decide between an ‘out of five’ or ‘out of ten’ system and realised I didn’t like either. Reading and writing is about words, so why use numbers to rate books?