Somewhere in Northern England, a man known only as Mr. Smith is indulging in an unusual hobby: betting on the winner of the Man Booker Prize. He got it right last year, correctly predicting that Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North would take the prize. This year, he’s putting his money on Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, which traces a year in the lives of four young migrants from India struggling to make a living in England. But he hasn’t even read either novel (or any of the other five on this year’s shortlist). He goes by reviews and the literary tastes he gleans from the judges’ Wikipedia entries.
That Mr. Smith hasn’t read Sahota’s book seems appropriate. Sahota, a British citizen, says he didn’t read a novel himself until he was 18—his pre-college English literature curriculum focused on drama and poetry (he went on to study math). The Year of the Runaways, published this summer in Britain and scheduled to be released in the U.S. on March 1, 2016, is his second novel. It follows the more explicitly political Ours Are the Streets (2011), the diary of a young British Pakistani suicide bomber.
Runaways, too, is a dark book, joining a roster that Michael Wood, the chair of the Man Booker Prize’s committee, acknowledged to the BBC is “pretty grim," adding that “there is a tremendous amount of violence.” But what is striking about Sahota’s newer novel—in contrast to its predecessor and some of its Man Booker company—is its focus on mundane, unremitting struggle, not violent drama (although there’s some of that too). Sahota’s real challenge lies in finding a way to depict lives of daily degradation, poverty, and prejudice while avoiding tedium, and ultimately suggesting that a better future is possible.
Set in 2003, the book is structured around the year announced in its title. Four novella-length chapters span one season each. Yet within them, Sahota cross-cuts in bold and disorienting ways, alternating between the backstories of the four main characters and scenes from their present lives. Three are men—Tarlochan, Avtar, and Randeep—who make their way to the northern town of Sheffield, just a few among many young Indians bending the law to find opportunity in England. The fourth is Narinder, a pious British-born Sikh woman who is to be Randeep’s visa wife.