The Year of the Runaways

by Sunjeev Sahota

This book was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize.  I came across reviews of it while looking for another book with the word ‘runaway’ in the title, and it immediately appealed, so I ordered it from the library.

The runaways of the title are four young Sikhs trying to make their lives in the UK.  The three men are all from India, and have arrived in the UK either illegally or with contrived (and bought) student or marriage visas.  Each has a back story involving more or less harrowing experiences in India, so that the reader is compelled to empathise with their choice to try their luck in a new country.  Perhaps we empathise still more when we realise the huge personal cost and, indeed, personal and financial risk that they put themselves through in order to achieve their dream.  We hear of other people, peripheral to the story, who try the same thing and meet tragic ends.

The fourth character, and perhaps the one to whom the British reader can feel the closest affinity, is a young girl who has grown up in the UK and is expected to marry the person her family has chosen for her.  She is deeply religious, and accepts her duty willingly.  But her religious zeal brings her into contact, when performing charitable works on an annual visit to the temple in India, with a poor family whose daughter has migrated to the UK.  She seeks out the daughter, and her sympathy for the family leads her to take a momentous step in her own life – becoming a runaway in her own right.

The lives of the four intertwine, as we follow their stories: living in distressingly shabby accommodation; exploited by employers (and, to some extent, each other); living from hand to mouth; becoming victims and perpetrators of violent acts; and constantly hiding and moving around for fear of being exposed.

The story’s epilogue shows a more positive, sustainable future for the four.  I can’t help feeling that the author is being overly optimistic.  But this is, at base, a heart-warming story, with likeable characters.  You can’t help wishing them well.