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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 that spur their migration. Finally, Sahota renders Narinder's devout Sikh childhood in incandescent snippets, as if he were a little awed by her, just like everyone else. And the novel pulls in a little of its characters' futures, too, transgressing against its namesake year with an epilogue.

Alongside its narrative devices, other literary stratagems add to its bandwidth. Take, as one example, Tochi's last glance at India. As his plane taxies onto the runway, "he look[s] at the dirty white span of wing veering away and beyond … to the floodlit luggage men playing cards on the bottom step of a mobile staircase." The understated symbolism here is brilliant, starting with "the dirty white span of wing veering away," an emblem of colonialism in reverse. But, as the "dirty white" implies, to reverse colonialism is not to undo it; it is, rather, only to promise a broader staging ground for less strident injustices—meaning that Tochi can watch "the dark sky ope[n,] becko[n], and [feel] a sense of being freed, of freedom" even as he travels to new bigotries and a different poverty. He is, after all, despite his ticket to Europe, no freer than the "luggage men playing cards on the bottom step of a mobile staircase." He is—as they are—playing long odds from a low position. What's more, even if he or they rise, more likely than not, the staircase will move and everything shift underfoot, felling them.

Unfussily, Sahota insets such symbols and parables throughout The Year of the Runaways. The book's literary devices, then, will not snag or stagger readers' attention unless they slow to look for them. Indeed, this fiction is a story first, absent any distracting polemic, so that even as its causes and effects overlap with ethical and political realities, Sahota's story never sidles into oratory. Each trope or metaphor lies flush with the smooth surface of the story itself, and this is one of its key virtues.

Its cardinal virtue, however, is that its characters—even merely glimpsed—cannot be confined by the novel; indeed, Randeep and Avtar, Tochi and Narinder will intrude on your thoughts when the book is closed.

That said, I cannot pinpoint just how these characters earn their long and vivid half-lives in the reader's mind. Certainly, they owe Sahota's knack for description a great deal. Consider the two sentences in which he depicts Narinder's mother as she makes her annual ascent to a high, holy place in Anandpur Sahib:

It was an amazing sight for the young Narinder waiting at the top: the giant white expanse of the steps triangulating away from her, and, alone in the centre of it, as true as bread, her mother in quiet standing prayer, her chunni pinned over her turban so it wouldn't slip each time she bent down, her feet pressed together at the heels, as they should be. It took her nearly an hour in that crucifying heat to reach the shade at the top, yet to her daughter she didn't seem made at all hot or bothered by the effort.

In less than a paragraph, Narinder's mother becomes an amazing sight for me, too. Even more, though, I find it amazing to edge so close to Narinder that I can crib off her sense of sight, its geometric perspective blurred by heat, its frame a rubric for veneration but its center the four words "as true as bread." And I can crib off her ear for English as well, its innocent allusion to Christ ("crucifying"), its slant handling of an idiom ("made at all hot or bothered"). All of which conspire to let Narinder draw breath beside me, when I'm reading and when I'm not.

The same is true for Randeep and Avtar when, almost at the end of hunger, they scrutinize a stolen chicken's insides, "nostrils doing the opposite of flaring." And of Tochi, too, when Narinder gently advises him that grade school crossing guards are not police; he cannot help sighing, embarrassed, relieved.

Nor does the writer stop at bringing his four central characters to life. On the contrary, he lets several carefully made secondary characters and fistfuls of extras crowd his clan of runaways—each of whom comes across as human enough that the reader intuits how many urgent, untold stories exist alongside the ones that Sahota gets to tell. And good readers will further intuit, without any clumsy prodding from the book itself, the faint but unmistakable exponent for these fictional figures' hardships: the unpretended and largely unimagined hardships of boys really named Avtar, of girls really named Narinder. Or Gurpreet or Savraj or Navjoht.

Now, of course, one could fill a small library with books whose good stories their characters seem to outlive and a medium-sized church with those fictional people who have siblings in the real world, and the fact that this is true matters. After all, having such books, such characters, means having more room to practice compassion.

But because many of the characters in my medium-sized church resemble me or people I already love, I know that whatever of my compassion derives from reading, I am still practicing it too provincially. It's not that I don't prize the company I already have: John Ames, of Gilead, Iowa, who rests his elbows on the bench in front of him, and Oskar Schell, of New York City, who sits in a pew, dangling his short legs, his boots heavy; the Brothers K and Scout Finch, who file in, cowlicks in their hair, and Mrs. Dalloway, who pushes a hairpin deeper into her chignon. I do prize them, but that doesn't mean it's not a relief to count Avtar and Randeep and Narinder and Tochi as new arrivals to this overly Anglo congregation. (And perhaps it relieves them, a little, to see that there's also a delegation from Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance in attendance.)

Nonetheless, my particular congregation of undying characters remains too white, too American. I blame myself, in part, for that. I'm not guiltless, either, when it comes to the fact that most of the characters I find capable of breath speak unbroken, standard English; that most of them wear familiar clothes; and that, by and large, they and I direct our belief or skepticism to the same God. At the same time, I would guess that you, too, rarely hear the breath of those from far away, measure the distance as you will: by means of history or atlases, in terms of culture or caste. And, what's worse—for all of us—is that the known antidotes for implicit bias remain both slow-acting and imperfect.

Do not think, then, I'm going to hawk The Years of the Runaways as good medicine, as an unbitter pill. If anything, it is a germ, a grain, but there is, at least, this: I suspect it of being perennial.

Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin College and, with co-director Jennifer Holberg, leads the newly launched Calvin Center for Faith and Writing.

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