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Review of 'The Year of the Runaways (by Sunjeev Sahota)

Sahota’s novel is perhaps less stylistically innovative than some of the other novels we’ve read on the unit. How did you respond to his prose style? How would you characterise it (what key features would you identify)? Does ‘stylistic innovation’ matter to you as a reader?

The style is basic but I do view it as a kind of positive in this book. The ways Sahota writes does enable clarity and reduces the ambiguity we’ve seen in many of the other course novels, though I have to agree with certain reviewers who have described it as workmanlike, pedestrian and overly simplistic. The reader can tell who is speaking and won’t need to re-read sentences in order to make sense of them. It is a good job really, as there is already potential for confusion with the lack of clear characterisation and the use of Punjabi.I do find that when a book is complex of plot, or when the characters and places are words you aren’t familiar with, then I, as a reader, do appreciate a simpler format and style.

Stylistic innovation matters little to me when I am reading. What matters more is that the story is well told and effectively written, whether this is in flowery descriptive prose or in short, terse tag lines. Provided the style matches the material rather than overwhelms it, all styles have their plus points.

The Year of the Runaways follows four main characters – Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder – through the use of discrete narrative sections. In this regard it might be compared to other novels on the unit, such as NW, Arlington Park, and The Heart Goes Last. In terms of stranding, what differences or similarities can you see between Runaways and these other novels? Do you feel that Sahota’s approach has any significant advantages or disadvantages in relation to the others? What effects does Sahota’s approach to stranding have upon the way we interpret the novel’s characters?

As in most of the other books we’ve looked at, plot and action aren’t always entirely clearly drawn. Clear stranding therefore does help, as does the revealing of character history.

Did you find the novel more ‘readable’ as a result of this approach?

I am not sure that I find this novel overly readable. I like the style and structure but the lack of book’s length and its clarity regarding the characters did cause problems for me. One Goodreads review says “it’s as if Sahota has decided that realism demands minute attention to detail, no matter how uninteresting the detail. Yes, the lives of the young men are a grind, often boring, repetitive and exhausting, but the detailing of it puts a serious drag on the book’s momentum”.

The novel utilises third-person narration. As we have discussed in previous sessions, point of view has a fundamental effect upon the meanings generated by a novel. How would the novel have changed had Sahota opted to use the first person for each character?

The use of first person would have given the stories a more personal feel, and this wouldn’t have necessarily allowed us to view the characters in the same way. We’d be much more subjective rather than objective. Also, the novel seems to have been built on the external lives of the characters rather than the internal dialogues which are inevitable as a result of the use of first person.

The first chapter – ‘Arrivals’ – introduces the novel’s four main characters before focussing upon each on in turn.

How successful do you feel this opening is? What kinds of expectations does it establish for the reader? How does it ‘frame’ the subsequent story?

I quite enjoyed the opening to this book, though it wasn’t always clear who everyone was. I found it gave a strong sense of how the young men lived and how seedy their lives had become. Yes, it does ‘frame’ the story by rooting its beginning in a time and place, but the reader doesn’t get a clear sense of who the story is about. What I found interesting was the acceptance mixed in with the conflicting interests, the religion and the secular society, loyalty and reasons for being where they were. The beginning of the book gave the reader a window into the kinds of people, the seedy locations, the overcrowding and some of the generalised anxiety involved.

Are the strands given equal weight in terms of length? Did you feel each character was equally well served?

Each of the strands is substantial enough to work as its own, but none of the stories would be enough to keep my interest. I do feel that a novel should be more than a group of interconnected stories, and I don’t think this novel succeeded. I can’t clarify about what element should tie them together, and on the surface it does appear that there are very clear connections between the characters, but to me, it seemed it was only their proximity and their lives. Psychological links are what I want, and I didn’t really get them here.

Narinder is the only character who hasn’t been completely squashed by the way they are all living, perhaps because she’s a local and understands the country’s systems a little better?

Who knows? I also wasn’t sure that any of the main characters were actually fully rounded – perhaps this is what stopped my feeling the links between them. Narinder is the most likeable because of her sacrifice but all the characters have sacrificed themselves quite large extents. All have suffered and all were important to the story’s flow.

How successfully does the novel deal with time (for example, you might think about the sections which employ analepsis, and the ‘present’ of the year in the title)?

It is hard to get into the world of this novel and to comprehend how these young immigrants must be living. We hear about what goes on but don’t get much feedback on how they feel about it. The novel takes place over a year and cover how life treats the main protagonists during that time. During the story, much is mentioned of their pasts, and this use of analepsis is necessary in order to get some sense of what the characters are background-wise in comparison with where they find themselves at the time of the novel’s writing. I don’t feel that the novel dealt with time all that clearly owing to the characters’ lack of inner lives.

Though the majority of the novel’s narration and dialogue is in English, Sahota uses a great deal of Punjabi dialect throughout. Some of that usage is accompanied by clarification: ‘Not far from the train station he stopped outside a theka, a liquor store’ (41), or ‘“Vo he tho hai mera naam,” Kishen finished. A schoolyard phrase, about their names being all they owned’ (58). However, the majority of dialect is not defined: ‘So, even in England she wore a kesri. A domed deep-green one that matched her salwar kameez’ (3), or ‘Three days after Navratri, the rains came, blasting the red earth.’ (59) How did you respond to the frequent use of Indian dialects in the novel? What sorts of effects does it generate? How does it position the (non-Punjabi-speaking) reader?

The frequent use of Indian dialogues can be dealt with in a number of ways. The reader can sit in front of a computer or dictionary and look up each unknown word, as I did when I first began reading this book. However, after a little while this impedes the flow of the book. It gives the effect of making the non-Punjabi speaking reader feel more of an alien, perhaps this being intended because the characters are all aliens in a foreign place too. I quite enjoy the frequent use of Punjabi words, but found the three male characters’ names and characters to not be well defined enough, so I got mixed up almost all the way through the book!

Given the presentation of his characters’ speech and thought into English, is Sahota’s use of Indian dialects necessary, in your opinion?

Because there is little interior life for any of this book’s characters, the story is all about who does what - and when It is left to the reader to work out how the characters are feeling, emotionally. In some ways this makes the reader feel that the characters are more helpless and this draws us in a little into their lives with a sense of curiosity. Few comments are made by the characters regarding how bad their lives are, though they clearly live pretty unpleasant lives. It is my feeling that the static nature of the characters only really comes to life when the Punjabi words give them a sense of racial identity.

In a more general sense, how do these two types of usage (defined and undefined) position the reader, respectively? Is one approach more successful than the other, in your opinion? Might either approach work well, depending on the novel?

When the usage is defined, the writer is assuming that the reader is not a Punjabi speaker or familiar with the details of these lives. This puts the reader in a position of being an informed alien. When the usage is not defined, it gives another alien sense. It’s like being at a meeting where everyone else has a clear understanding of the agenda, specific business-related acronyms etc, and you are lost in a sea of strange language. You struggle on as well as you can but are always looking for clues to make sense of the situation. This book’s approach, using both defined and undefined, does actually work. It is one of the stronger elements of the novel.

Similarly, how important is it for the reader to have a grasp of the contexts of the novel – the Indian caste system, Hindu nationalist violence, the Sikh religion? Does the novel assume that the reader already possesses such knowledge, or does it impart it? How relatable did you find the story and its characters?

It isn’t important to have a grasp of all the contexts, though I think it is vital to realise that when the people come to another country, it isn’t all about economics – it is about family honour, politics, class, and so many other things. If a reader had no idea, then the background writing of India does give some background. Even if we don’t fully understand, we can appreciate some of what these desperate characters may be going through. There is a lot of veiled sociological criticism but, as a Goodreads review reads - “…

We have discussed the language of place and setting in relation to other novels on the unit (most notably Arlington Park and The Road). Think about the way in which India and England are described in The Year of the Runaways. Are these settings adequately distinguished or individualised, in your opinion?

Having never been to India I cannot speak from personal experience, but I do feel that the setting is quite well described. I felt about the setting much as I did with that described in “Time for a Tiger”. “The Road” has a strong sense of place, though the details of place are more sordid and person-specific, rather than area-specific. “Arlington Park” uses a location built around a sense of middle class superiority yet simultaneous lack of satisfaction. The settings described by Sahota are specific and vibrant (in the case of India), but damp, drab and unfriendly (in the case of England). What the book lacks regarding character differentiation, it makes up for with the setting differentiation.

How does the novel explore the relationship between the ‘runaways’ and England? How ‘complete’ a picture of the country and its people does the novel offer?

The three male ‘runaways’ have little or no relationship with the country or society of England. Their existence within England seems to have been forced upon them by circumstance, and have become entirely an economic transaction, there being little or no inter-racial integration. This must be intentional, for how on earth could the workers be so exploited if their friend groups were able to defend them and give them a sense of contrast with the outside world of non-immigrant working people in England. Because of this, I didn’t feel there was a detailed or evocative image of England written. England was a backdrop for squalor, as was India, and, though there were clear differences between the European and Asian scene settings, I didn’t get a clear sense of place for the writing about England (though I did for India). Narinder, the only female runaway, was the only one to originate in the UK. She spent time alone, on public transport, at temple and community centre etc. She was able to do this, being a legitimate UK citizen. So, although she still spent much of her time within her own community, she did have more of a historical and current relationship with the country than the others did.

How did you respond to the end of the novel? Did it provide a satisfying pay-off? Although I generally enjoyed the book’s simple prose, the use of Punjabi and the feel of the novel, I didn’t really feel the plot was satisfying, particularly the ending. The only main female character seemed inserted into the action. A man needed a visa wife, and in came Narinder. Though her character was the most likeable and had the most convincing psychological status, she was required to give legitimacy to her husband but her story was very much too short, especially considering it was one of the major pivots for the whole book. This was a book which was too long, disconnecting, and it lost my interest very quickly. Like Narinder, the epilogue seemed added on as an afterthought and as a result it was unsatisfying. I would have preferred the story to end inconclusively, possibly with the threat of deportations and the promise of a good job giving the reader something to consider about the characters’ future, rather than the reader being presented with a future of little interest.

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