There but for fortune…

This is my review of The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota.

Randeep, Avtar and Tochi are all economic migrants from India, crammed with others into a small terraced house in Sheffield where they work illegally on a building site, paid far below the minimum wage by an unscrupulous gang-master. It took a while for the author to establish their backstories, but eventually I became engrossed in their individual lives, and the different chains of misfortune which led them to obtain falsely or infringe the terms of their visas.

This is a fascinating insight into Indian culture: the continued level of violent prejudice against untouchables like Tochi, even amongst British Indians; the lack of a social security system in India to support Randeep’s upper caste family when his father falls ill, aggravated by his mother’s view that it is socially beneath her to work; the complex network amongst British Indians in which illegal migrants are both exploited and assisted, not least the gurdwara or places of Sikh worship where desperate followers of the faith can often get temporary bed and food. Randeep’s British “visa bride” Narinder also makes us think about the role of women in segregated communities who are repressed by fathers and brothers, denied the chance to gain any qualifications or the right to work, for whom breaking free means bringing shame on parents they may love too much to hurt.

Despite being a powerful and gripping story, strengthened by what seems to be authentic knowledge, it is weakened by a clunky structure and often incongruous style. There are almost too many characters to grasp, although you could say this gives a Dickensian touch, too much mundane or minute detail which saps the narrative drive, although this may also help one to visualise the scene, except, of course, where there are too many distracting Hindi (?)/Sikh terms making the confused and irritated reader long for a glossary.

My main problem is with the frequent odd turns of phrase: “earplugs emerged from her neckline to noodle about her chest”, “the writing desk too narrow for the three large oval doilies it was dressed in”, the urban stretch of rivers with “just the odd fishermen thickly hidden”, “she repaired to the outside toilets” (archaic in context). I cannot decide whether the approach is a daring attempt at poetical language which sometimes works as in “the sunlight squandered itself across the world”, or the errors of someone for whom English is a second language. I agree with other reviewers who have called for sharper editing, excising the indulgent wordiness and digressions, but since I have often complained about the formulaic effect of creative writing classes, perhaps this apparently spontaneous torrent of page-turning, thought-provoking flawed talent comes as a breath of fresh air.

The final Chapter 14 ends abruptly, leaving questions unanswered as to exactly how the main characters arrive at the “almost happy ending " of the i-dotting epilogue, a bland anticlimax after the unrelenting blows of the main text, although bitter ironies still lie just below the surface.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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