Since publishing his first novel Ours are the Streets, Sunjeev Sahota has been named as one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists. His second novel The Year of the Runaways was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and, possibly even more of an achievement considering its main characters are (possibly illegal) migrants, earned the comment ‘should be compulsory reading’ from the Daily Mail. So, it would be fair to expect great things. Do we get them? Almost unreservedly, yes.
The runaways in question are a collection of Indian migrants holed up in Sheffield. They are there (there being Sheffield) for a job, or, in the case of one of them, a fake marriage. The stories, personalities and motives of the four central characters are revealed one by one, as we alternate between the events of The Year and the backgrounds of the Runaways. What starts in our perception as a bunch of brown illegals gradually evolves into distinct characters who have paid unthinkable prices to end up in this cold, foreign town. Perhaps the most complex of these is Narinder, the only one of the four born in the UK, who has agreed to a visa marriage for reasons which initially baffle, but later become clear. Of the others, two have taken on the responsibility of supporting families back in India, and one is hoping to leave behind caste violence.
“‘Do you think Gurpreet’s right? About what he said this morning?’
‘What did he say this morning?’
…’He said it’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.’ Randeep turned to Avtar. ‘Do you think that’s true?’
‘I think he’s a sentimental creep. We come here for the same reason our people do anything. Duty. We’re doing our duty. And it’s shit.’”
Addictive text feeds the continual illumination of things we’d rather not think about, at times in excruciating detail.
“Avtar plugged the hose into the nearest jet, using both hands to secure the plastic nut, and climbed down into the sewer. The nozzle of the hose peeked out from his armpit like a little green pet, and, as he landed, one foot at a time, the dark water came to his knees. Things bobbed on the surface – ribbons of tissue, air-filled condoms that looked like silver fish floating dumbly towards the light. A furry layer of moss waved back and forth across the curve of the brickwork. Everything seemed bathed in a gelatinous gleam.”
Structurally, it’s a little bit reminiscent of David Mitchell’s earlier novels and possibly Calvino’s If on a Winters Night a Traveller, but with continuity and closure. This makes it a satisfying read both logically and emotionally: one of those works whose apparent simplicity belies the huge amount of effort and skill behind it all. Pitch perfect prose switches transports effortlessly from Britain to India and back; the text is liberally sprinkled with Indian words and expressions, but their meaning is almost always easy to imagine. If I were pressed to criticise, maybe I would mention that the structure is just a little too neat, the emotional bombardment just a little relentless; a niggling feeling that I was being manipulated by storylines calculated for maximum impact. But I should probably just stop being so cynical and concentrate on enjoying what’s otherwise a superb read.
Any Cop?: Definitely delivers on expectations, although it took me a long time to write this review because I could not work out if its appeal is genius or manufactured. That said, it’s still my book of the year.