Too often we look at the displaced with a sense of derision, a false sense of superiority as we are remain blissfully unaware that circumstances completely outside of our control have determined our different fates and that the position of privilege which so many of us occupy is far closer to the precipice than many of us would imagine. ‘The Year of the Runaways’ follows the lives of four characters-Tarlochan, Avtar, Randeep and Narinder, whose lives intersect and gradually intertwine in Sheffield. Tarlochan, Avtar and Randeep are illegal immigrants who emigrate to England in order to forget the tragedies which consumed their lives; Tarlochan’s family becomes the victim of a Hindu nationalist violence, the slow unravelling of Randeep’s fathers mind causes him to make a desperate decision and the desire for better life leads to Avtar’s decision to emigrate. In the middle of all of this is Narinder, who acts as the star against which the lives of the other characters circle. Narinder has been brought up in a conservative Sikh family in England and longs to escape and to forge her own path in life in a family which constantly denies her any sense of freedom or independence.
All to frequently British Asian fiction is full of characters who perpetuate stereotypes, cloyingly cliched mannequins clothed in the conventionalises, however Sahota is able to imbue his characters with depth. Tarlochan is by the most tragic, not only because of the violence his family suffered but also because of the prejudices his faces due to his caste, which cause him to enter a state of silent stoicism. Narinder is the most sympathetic, a kind-hearted person who desire to live independently and make her own decisions is constantly repudiated by her parochial family members. All of the characters wear various shades of grey, however this is most true for Avtar and Randeep, who are ill prepared for the dehumanising nature of being a poor, illegal migrant, a life whose sheer desperation reduces people to their most animalistic state. And so it is desperation which drives them to make many questionable decisions, but Sahota’s skilful characterisation means the reader frequently sympathises with the characters, even if we know what they are doing is wrong.
The greatest strength of ‘The Year of the Runaways’ is its ability to give a voice to people who traditionally lacked one; whether it be the inner life of a young woman struggling with her identity and religion on a world full of cruelty or of young men who, in attempt to forget their pasts also lose any sense of themselves and whose lives become a struggle to regain the sense of humanity which they feel gradually slipping away.