They move among us, largely unseen, but this year’s politically-charged invective against illegal immigrants has brought those uninvited guests to the forefront. Living here in California, we drive past them as they labor in our fields. Across the country, they work behind the scenes in restaurants, toil in sweatshops for low wages, do the jobs that most of us might offer up a prayer of thanks that we have never had to do.
Much as T.C. Boyle did in The Tortilla Curtain, Sunjeev Sahota forces us to take a closer look.
This is the story of a group of young people who, due to various circumstances, leave their homes in India and immigrate to England hoping to improve their lot in life. There’s Tochi, who leaves his home in Bihar following a riot that destroys his life and family. Randeep uses his connections to secure an illegal “visa-wife”, a sham marriage that keeps them both on the edge of the law. Avtar hopes to improve his parents’ lives of poverty by sending money back to India. All come to London with high hopes.
It isn’t as easy as they expect. In fact, this novel is essentially the story that is playing out for desperate people around the world – Syrians, Libyans, Central Americans to name a few – trying to improve their lives in a world that is becoming less and less welcoming. For the young men in The Year of Runaways, it becomes a constant search for work that is impossible to find. When they do find it, they live in fear of their job site being raided by immigration inspectors. At the mercy of unscrupulous employers, they are forced to tolerate dangerous working conditions. When ill, they don’t dare seek out medical care. When borrowing money, if they can’t make installment payments on time not only are they threatened, but so are their families in India.
Shortlisted for last year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, The Year of the Runaways is a compelling, if disturbing, read. Ron Charles, in his Washington Post review, calls it “The Grapes of Wrath for the 21st century”.
It is also a challenging read in that Sahota has interspersed Panjabi words throughout the book without providing translations or a glossary. (An interesting aside: a reviewer on Goodreads named Paul Bryant tallied “facts” about the book and included “Untranslated Panjabi words: 24,677). In an interview for Bookpage, Sahota explains this decision:
It’s the background orchestra of the novel. This is an insider’s view, so it felt natural to include Punjabi in the book to give a flavor, to show this different world that exists inside England. If a reader doesn’t understand some of it, then ironically it puts the reader in the position of someone coming to England who can’t make much sense of this new world.
This is a challenging, yet compelling, book. It covers a wide range of issues with honesty and purpose. It forces us to look at and consider uncomfortable issues, making it more difficult to look away.