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The Year of the Runaways: A novel
The Year of the Runaways: A novel
Sunjeev Sahota
Knopf, 2016
496 pp., $27.95

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Jane Zwart

Running in Circles

The story of Randeep, Avtar, Tochi, and Narinder.

Here is The Year of the Runaways in a nutshell: the primary runaways' names are Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi, and the year belongs to the recent past. These three young men begin the novel shacked up with ten others in an almost unfurnished house in Sheffield, England, from which a bully with a van delivers them, daily, to punishing construction jobs. Each is an Indian citizen. And each an illegal immigrant, give or take (Randeep and Avtar carry specious visas, at least).

Then again, Narinder is a runaway of a sort, too. She—an English citizen—aids Randeep in obtaining his specious visa for reasons of her own; their pretended wedding opens the loophole through which he flies toward Britain and its touted opportunities. On arrival, though, Randeep does not settle into the arduous-but-worthwhile experience he's counted on. Instead, he goes hungry and stays lonely. He earns little money and pays for every arbitrary disadvantage. He compromises his morals. He hunkers down; he scrapes by. Just like those his life intersects with—like Avtar and Toshi and Narinder and like all their fellows. So there you have it: Sanjeev Sahota's second novel, shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, in a nutshell.

Except this novel refuses to fit entirely in the nutshell into which one can, just barely, cram its plot. Rather, The Year of the Runaways is dehiscent, a seed that frees itself.

To begin, this fiction exceeds a tidy rendition of its plot thanks to its narrative devices. Sahota swells his book's alleged year with his characters' backstories. He follows Tochi, the untouchable, at a little distance, abridging his adolescence but methodically documenting his short-lived career as a driver (half-chauffeur, half-cabbie) right through its catastrophic finish. The Punjabi Avtar and Randeep, in turn, the novelist treats like younger brothers, first describing their teenaged exploits fondly, familiarly, and later giving an empathetic account of the troubles ...

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