The Year of the Runaways
is bestselling author Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel. Published in 2015 by Picador, it tells the story of three men and one woman and their experiences of life in Britain as illegal immigrants. The book received widespread critical acclaim upon publication and won the 2015 RSL Encore Award. It was also nominated for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and the 2015 Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year. In 2013, Sahota was included in the Granta list of the twenty best young British writers.
The book is structured into four sections, which accord with the seasons, beginning in winter. In each section, we learn about a character’s backstory. The four main characters are South Asian immigrants seeking a new life in Yorkshire. Avtar and Randeep already live in a rundown, communal house. Tarlochan, or “Tochi,” moves in with them when he arrives in Yorkshire. Narinder, Randeep’s wife, already lives in the UK and marries Randeep so he can stay there.
Their biggest concern is an immigration raid, and what they’ll do if they’re caught. They try to stay under the radar, working in menial jobs, such as sewer maintenance and food service, so no one notices them. Their main fear is going to back to the misery they left behind in India. We learn about each of their histories in turn through flashbacks.
It takes a while before the characters tell each other about their lives back home. We learn that Tochi, for example, watched his whole family die in a massacre, and he’s traumatized by the experience. He lost his pregnant sister, his brother, and his parents. Because he is a “chamaar,” or part of the lowest caste group in India, he struggled to survive back home and can’t face the thought of going back.
Meanwhile, we learn about Randeep’s life and why he wants to stay in Yorkshire. He flunked college because he spent his time looking after his ill father, and then he was expelled for raping a classmate. He doesn’t live with Narinder, but he knows the flat well enough to pass immigration inspections. Narinder didn’t meet Randeep before marrying him; she left her fiancé so she could perform this duty.
Randeep and Narinder grow closer and become friends as the novel progresses, no longer seeing each other simply out of circumstance. However, they never love each other romantically, and they divorce when they get the opportunity. Narinder later marries her previous fiancé and scatters her father’s ashes back home in India after he dies of a stroke. It’s not clear she and Randeep will remain friends, but there is no ill will between them.
We learn more about Avtar and his life in India. He worked as a train conductor and secretly dated Randeep’s sister, Lahkpreet. When Avtar lost his job after a car crash, he sells a kidney to get the money for a student visa in England. In Yorkshire, he struggles to find work and juggle job hunting with studying for exams. When he goes to London to sit his exams and retain his visa, street creditors find him and beat him up for not paying his loans back.
Avtar later marries Lahkpreet when he returns to India. He finishes his student visa but can’t secure work, so he steals chickens with Randeep for money. They’re eventually traced by immigration officials, and although they escape, Avtar knows he can’t make his life in England if he wants to ever feel safe.
Tochi also has a complex backstory. He worked in a brick factory for two years before he had the money to come to England; he spends this time grieving his lost family. In Yorkshire, he works in a shop, but he lies about his caste so he can get the job. When the family that owns the shop finds him a girl to marry, he can’t, because he lied about his caste. He must leave the job when they find out, however, he gets another when he offers to work for less pay.
Tochi ends up leaving the group home and living in a flat under Narinder’s. When Randeep goes missing before an immigration inspection, he helps Narinder look for him. They strike up a fond friendship and exchange thoughts on equality and the caste system. They understand each other better by the end of the book.
However, all is not well for Tochi. Avtar steals from him to pay his debts, and Tochi attacks him. He leaves Avtar in a very bad way and goes to Spain to find work because he knows he can’t stay in England. Tochi later marries and has children. During the epilogue, Narinder sees him and his family watching a play, but she doesn’t disturb them. She’s comforted to know that Tochi found happiness.