Or perhaps I should rephrase that as, what makes a book good?
I have recently read The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. I must admit, that usually anything Man Bookery puts me off reading a book. Too avant garde, too clever, perhaps? When I began to read this book, I thought that I was going to find I felt the same about it. The narrative is set in Sheffield and deals with the story of Tochi, Avtar and Randeep who have fled India in the hope to find better lives in this county. Tochi and Avtar have no papers, and come here illegally, Randeep is married to Narinder, but it’s an arranged marriage purely for the purpose of obtaining a visa, and she has run away from her Sheik family and lives a secret life in order to help him.
Once I started reading, I thought I was going to love this book, but I didn’t like the structure at all, which jumped from one character to another so quickly it was difficult to distinguish them. The prose was clunky, not because it was the natural voice of the characters being portrayed, but because the author told us too much rather than showing it; whether it was the description of buildings or how characters were feeling – thus committing a basic writing sin of show don’t tell. For those Sheffielders who have read it, the geographical references and public transport timetables don’t add up, and this takes you away from the narrative.
At times, I thought, I can’t read this any more, I’m going to put this book down, but I don’t like doing this and I’m glad I persevered, for it is definitely a book of two halves. By the second half the characters had definitely formed, their backstory was at once shocking and compelling. I was drawn in, wanting them to succeed in their bid to escape poverty and to make a better life for not only themselves, but for their families, in a country where they had to live like sewer rats to achieve it.
But what was more revealing is how little I know of what goes on in a city I know so well. It made me think about the number of illegal immigrants sleeping rough or used as slave labour, earning a little more than a pound an hour, who might be there right under our noses – are those men who clean our cars in the supermarket a case in hand, for instance? I think if anyone is judgmental about immigrants coming here, then they should read this book – it will reveal to you the horrors that many of these people suffer before they make the decision to leave their home: selling a kidney, for instance, in order to stop your parents being thrown out onto the street; witnessing the brutal and horrific murder of your family because you and they belong to the wrong caste. These decisions are not taken lightly, they are the decisions of desperate people.
Without giving too much away, this is a story that lingers. Not only has it given me a greater understanding of the multi-layered culture of the Indian community (both in India and in England); the awful effects of prejudice even towards your own; of abject poverty; of the supression of Indian women in this country by their families, it has also opened my eyes to my own failings. Never again will I look at someone trying to make a better life for themselves without wondering what it is that they have escaped from, nor how dreadful their lives must have been in their own homeland.
So yes. This novel does have failings structurally. The ending seems to be clipped on. I would question how much of the ending we really need to know, as it poses more questions than it answers – although as readers we do want to know what happens to the main characters. The prose is at times weak: the pace of first half of the novel is slow and is not as engaging as the second, but for all that, it is not only a good book, it is a powerful book. It is one that lingers, that gets deep beneath your skin, that makes you feel uncomfortable and which dares to pose difficult questions, not simply about the characters, but about those around you, as well as forcing you to ask awkward questions about yourself.
I dare you to read this book; it will challenge how you felt before.