[Review] The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

Title of Book:
The Year of the Runaways
Author: Sunjeev Sahota
Publisher: Picador
Publication Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardback
Pages: 468

From one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists and Man Booker Prize nominee Sunjeev Sahota—a sweeping, urgent contemporary epic, set against a vast geographical and historical canvas, astonishing for its richness and texture and scope, and for the utter immersiveness of its reading experience.
Three young men, and one unforgettable woman, come together in a journey from India to England, where they hope to begin something new—to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape the past. They have almost no idea what awaits them.
In a dilapidated shared house in Sheffield, Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his life in Bihar. Avtar and Randeep are middle-class boys whose families are slowly sinking into financial ruin, bound together by Avtar's secret. Randeep, in turn, has a visa wife across town, whose cupboards are full of her husband's clothes in case the immigration agents surprise her with a visit.
She is Narinder, and her story is the most surprising of them all.
The Year of the Runaways unfolds over the course of one shattering year in which the destinies of these four characters become irreversibly entwined, a year in which they are forced to rely on one another in ways they never could have foreseen, and in which their hopes of breaking free of the past are decimated by the punishing realities of immigrant life.
A novel of extraordinary ambition and authority, about what it means and what it costs to make a new life—about the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the resurrection of tenderness and humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.


The Year of the Runaways follows three Indian men (Tarlochan 'Tochi', Avtar, and Randeep) and a British-Indian woman, Narinder. The three Indian men risking their lives and move to England in the hope of better lives for them and their families. Tochi was a rickshaw driver before a tragedy happened which motivated him to save up and buy a visa abroad. While Avtar and Randeep both came from middle-class families. They were neighbors before Randeep moved because of his father's job. However, his father's health deteriorated so he had to find a job and save his family. Avtar and his family have their own financial problem. Randeep and Avtar then decided to try their luck by searching for a job in England. Whilst Avtar applied for student visa, Randeep bought a visa through arranged marriage with Narinder. Randeep and Narinder barely knew each other and they didn't even live in the same flat. This marriage would only be for a year, until Randeep got the stamp and he would bring his family to England. This book chronicles the lives of these four different people trying to survive in the year they begin to live far away from home.

This book mostly sets in England and India. It's divided into four big sections and each section represents a specific season in the year. The first 2 sections of the book go back and forth between present and past times. In between the story of them settling in England, we learn their stories prior to their arrival in the country. Through these chapters we discover their motivation and what shaped them to be the people they were in England. Later sections focus more on how they're struggling to survive to live in the foreign country.

When we're first introduced to the characters, they would come across as rude or desperate. As we learn their backstory, we'll figure out why they're the way they're. Tarlochan or Tochi is the one we're first introduced to. Of the four, in my opinion, he's the one who has the most heartbreaking story. Tochi is a Chamar. As a disclaimer, I don't know anything about Indian society caste system but from what I perceived by how other characters treat him, I assume Chamar is considered as an outcast. On top of the misfortunes he experienced, he also received discrimination from the society. What breaks my heart the most is, despite how people treat him, he still treats others with kindness and respect. To see how life has changed him into the person he's in England is utterly saddening.

Randeep is a son of a government official. However, his father's health keeps deteriorating which cause him to be suicidal. On the other hand, Randeep himself is involved in a problem resulting in him being expelled from school. The solution offered by his family is to get a job abroad; because of his family's financial ability, he could at least afford to pay visa through marriage. Randeep's sister was involved with Avtar. Avtar's family also had a financial problem which forced him to consider looking for opportunities abroad but Avtar's financial capability wasn't the same as Randeep. He had to sacrifice more than Randeep and even then he could only afford student visa which actually restrict him to work freely. Through these two characters, I saw how unforgiving life is even to more privileged people. Randeep seemed like he's lived a more sheltered life than Avtar; even Avtar thought so. Yet, in several events we'd see how he'd do anything to survive and protect people that he cared. He often struggles internally justifying that what he did was necessary to survive because he wasn't raised that way. While Avtar had no difficulties to play dirty as long as he survives. Seeing the relationship between these two demonstrate how sometimes there's no such thing as friends in the matter of survival.

Narinder has the most different background of the four. She's already lived a good life in England. She's raised religiously as a Sikh and always trying to live as a good person. One day, she encountered an unfortunate girl who made her question her belief and what being good and doing good are. This motivated her to help Randeep got visa by marrying him. In my opinion, she's the most naïve and even more sheltered than Randeep. There are times when I got frustrated at her and screaming internally that life is not that black and white. Her story is more of a personal journey to find herself and stay true to herself.

I like that in the first half of the book, Sahota introduces us to the characters one by one. This could get tricky, if the characters are able to catch the reader's heart, it'd encourage them to move forward. If it isn't, the readers would lose interest halfway. As for me, honestly after reading Narinder's backstory I wasn't that interested in her and actually thought about stopping midway. Still, I was already invested in Tochi that I continued on reading to see what happens next. Fortunately, Narinder's story in the last half is quite engrossing that I also enjoy reading the last half of the book.

In my understanding, the general themes of this book are social class division and belief. The social class division is apparent in Tochi, Randeep, and Avtar's part of the story. We could see how different their life was prior to living in England because of the caste system. Yet, they all end up the same in the end. While with Narinder, she's constantly questioning her belief in God; whether what she's doing is in accordance to God's teaching. When she meets Tochi, he also challenged her on her belief. After what Tochi's been through, he questioned if God actually exists which tested Narinder's belief even more.

Reading this book is exhausting. When I was reading the book, sometimes I wished the author would just end it right away. I couldn't take it anymore, these characters have been through so much; especially Tochi, he's the one that had my sympathy the most. The Year of the Runaways is truly an eye-opener. I think living in my country, a developed country with all its socioeconomic problem is hard enough. Reading this book, it hit me how privileged I actually am. My friends who live and work abroad in first world countries always said that although it appears like lives good there, it's still much better living in your own home country. But if your own country doesn't give you much opportunity, what to do then?

I was initially skeptical about this book. I've been putting off reading this book until 2021. The Year of the Runaways has been on my TBR for years. I thought I wasn't going to like it this much. Sure, there are times that I feel like the pacing is so slow or the character isn't compelling enough which makes this book feels too long. I'm glad I read it through the end. The ending is conclusive and satisfying (at least for me). If you're hesitant to pick this book up, I encourage you to read it. It's unexpectedly beautiful and poignant at the same time.

But it wasn’t pride, either. Or not just pride. It was a desire to be allowed a say in his life. He wondered if this was selfish; whether, in fact, they were right and he should simply recognize his place in this world.

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