The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sahota

>> Friday, August 28, 2015

TITLE: The Year of the Runaways
AUTHOR: Sunjeev Sahota

PAGES: 480

SETTING: Contemporary England and India
TYPE: Fiction

The Year of the Runaways tells of the bold dreams and daily struggles of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance. Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the chaotic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband's clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call.

Sweeping between India and England, and between childhood and the present day, Sunjeev Sahota's generous, unforgettable novel is - as with Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance - a story of dignity in the face of adversity and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.

This almost never happens, but sometimes a single scene can just make me stop dead and not want to continue reading an otherwise enjoyable book.

The Year of the Runaways is another book from the Man Booker longlist. It tells the story of a group of young Indians. As the book starts, the men are living together in a cramped little flat in Sheffield, working illegally and putting all their energy into their objectives. The action then moves back to India for each one, showing us what brought them to Sheffield and what they're working towards.

Initially, the comparisons to Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance made me give this the side-eye a bit, as I found that book unbearable. But this is very different. Bad things happen, too, very bad, but there is a fair bit of decency and goodness from characters big and small, and that makes it bearable. It also doesn't minimise the tragedy and unfairness in the least. In fact, I feel it makes the structural injustice and the horrible stuff work better, because it all becomes more believable. When everything is horrible and there's no one drop of goodness at all, my mind sort of shuts down and I stop caring about the characters, because I just don't believe the situation. The way this was written in this book made the tragedy even more tragic and affecting.

It's a nice, diverse group of people, as well, with very different backgrounds. There is no one motivation for immigration and no one story. These were stories I hadn't read before. I was looking forward to reading more.

But then I got to the scene I found unacceptable. This was at about 1/3 of the way in. In this scene, a really sympathetic character tries to rape a young woman. This is portrayed as him being overcome by his love and need for this girl, rather than, say, an attempt to punish or to control. My mind just stopped and went "No". This conception of rape as being about men not being able to control themselves because they just feel too much (lust, love, whatever) for the woman is toxic and harmful and disgusting. It's not a character self-justifying, which I would have been fine with (some men do, after all). The problem is that it's the narrative portraying the rape attempt this way. I might be overreacting. I've had a look at several reviews and no one even mentions this. Do you think I'm overreacting? The scene I section I object to is below. And in case you're wondering, the man is stone-cold sober at the time, so his obliviousness is not about that. Also, he's previously been a real sweetheart.

"You're the only one who understands", he said, easing her down, her head on the pillow. A nervous look crossed her face, which she tried to smile away. They resumed kissing. Her hands roved around his back as if not sure what they should be doing. His were on her waist, then her bottom. She pushed against his shoulders, but when he insisted on kissing her neck, she seemed willing to let him. He wanted to show her how much he loved her. How much it meant to him that she understood. He pushed up her top and couldn't believe that under it were her breasts. Just there under this thin top. The pink-brown tips revealed. He heard her say something and try to move away but he knew she liked him and he held her arms and kissed her breasts. She was saying it louder now, and the louder she said it the stronger his grip, the more fiercely he applied his mouth to her body. He felt her knees in his stomach, pushing him away. That didn't make sense. He rubbed his cock against her and she screamed, but he was groaning himself and he bit her breasts and dug his fingers into the maddeningly soft flesh of her arms and pushed his weight down, down on her. He was telling her how much he really loved her when he felt a pair of arms around his waist yank him violently away."
I'd also been bothered before this scene by how all the women were grasping and needy and selfish and constantly put the men under huge pressure to give them money: their husbands, their sons, all of them. But I was hoping that this characterisation would become more nuanced as we got to know more female characters. After the above, though, I just don't trust the author, and I refuse to read any further.



Anonymous,  3 November 2015 at 21:12  

I felt exactly the same about this scene and was surprised - no, horrified really - that nobody else seemed to have picked up on it. I am still part way through and was half hoping that somehow the writer would redeem the situation/interpretation somehow, but it seems not. So far the character continues to be portrayed as sympathetic. I had to google 'Sunjeev Sahota' and 'rape' before I found this blog. No other review I looked at seemed to consider an issue. I totally agree with your take on this, it's as if the rape attempt - which would have been more than an attempt had it not been prevented - was somehow understandable given the perpetrator's state of mind at the time, even though it was clearly a violent sexual assault. This has spoilt the whole book for me because it calls the writer's judgement into question and perpetuates a seriously unacceptable view of rape.

Rosario 6 November 2015 at 09:11  

Hi Marie, thanks so much for your comment. It's comforting to know it hit other people the same way, even if we're a minority. It feels like the author didn't really think about this too deeply, and neither do most readers. Not really surprising, unfortunately, given real-life attitudes towards rape, but still disappointing.

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