Radical Compassion in The Year of the Runaways

Sunjeev Sahota’s heart-wrenching Booker-nominated novel The Year of the Runaways, which follows four young Indians in England over a year filled with tragedy and struggle, is one of the most beautifully written books I have read all year, and also the most sensitively observed work of social realism.

The opening section focuses on Randeep, a painfully socially awkward young immigrant from India working in Sheffield on a fraudulent marriage visa. Crowded into a house with many other men in similarly precarious situations—including Avtar, working illegally on a student visa, and Tochi, an undocumented refugee—he struggles not only to get through each arduous day of hard labor and poverty, but to navigate the unspoken rules of friendship and society that everyone else seems to be able to understand.

As the year goes on, the three men struggle to grind out any kind of living in an indifferent, cruelly competitive society. Selfishness comes to seem the only way to stay alive, and even Randeep’s very shyness, pitiable at first, comes to seem more and more sinister until it culminates in a moment of true evil. The book describes in lucid, unsparing, highly immediate prose both the often-terrible choices made by the characters and the equally appalling way that both Indian and English society close opportunity and hope off to these young and optimistic, then desperate and hungry, men. The cold, the hard labor, the hunger they face are rendered in elegant, rich language.

Sometimes, turned away by their fellow Indian immigrants who can’t or won’t help them, they wonder what happened to the old days when Indian immigrants would feed and house each other. It seems that the self-reliant capitalist ethos of British culture has spread to their fellow countrypeople who paved the way before them and survived. But that’s not the only answer; it’s complicated by the fact that, as one of the characters points out, there has been a positive change in how women are expected to behave. No longer are Indian women sitting at home waiting to expend maximal labor and emotional effort on any man who shows up and asks for it.

Speaking of women, the book truly blossoms into the powerful ethical and emotional story that it is when it begins to focus more and more on Narinder, the English-born woman who marries Randeep to provide him with a visa for reasons that are at first mysterious. Sensitive, intelligent, and so compassionate that she can’t stand to ignore the suffering of others, she is a finely drawn and compelling character. The misery and unfairness she witnesses through her contact with Randeep cause her to question everything she’s been taught as she struggles to comprehend the injustice. Eventually, she becomes the emotional and ethical center of the book.

The book jacket of the edition I bought says that the book explores “the power of humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering,” but if you’re a fellow cynic, don’t be alarmed—this novel manages to be intensely humane while also frequently grinding its characters’ humanity into the dust. The novel is unsparing in its depiction of the moral and emotional cost this life of poverty and obscurity exacts upon these young, hopeful immigrants. Faith is lost, repugnant choices are made by seemingly sympathetic characters, and selfishness is everywhere. Narinder’s vision of self-sacrifice and charity, which might seem so radical compared to the bourgeois conventions of mainstream British society, begins to seem like the only possible answer to the desperate existence of these runaways.

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