In the Critics this Week

Philip Pullman on the Anglican tradition, misunderstanding what it means to be secular and commentar

The "Critic at large" in this week's New Statesman, Philip Pullman, explains what it means to be a "Church of England atheist". Asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the magazine's guest editor this week, to define his relationship to religion, Pullman redefines himself according to what David Eagleman calls a "possibilian", writing that "just because I haven't seen or heard from him, it doesn't mean that God doesn't exist." But despite his lack of belief in a higher authority, Pullman writes that it is his cultural experience of being brought up in the Church of England tradition that helps to define his sense of self. "I am English and I was brought up to go to church every Sunday, to say my prayers, to behave in certain ways in church... We can't abandon these early memories, by which I mean both that it's impossible and that it would be wrong."

Film Critic Ryan Gilbey praises director François Ozon's sense of comedy and subtle thoughtfulness in his latest film, Potiche, where an unglamorous Catherine Deneuve shines as an overlooked housewife. "With its 1970s factory-floor settind and battle-of-the-sexes themse, the picture may resemble for UK viewers a visually sumptuous version of Carry On at Your Convenience". "Ozon has made an authentic romp with an underlying prickliness," he writes, "[this film] is candyfloss laced with barbed wire."

The Books Interview this week is with Cees Nooteboom. The Dutch author talks to Duncan Robinson about the cathartic nature of writing and discusses how his work has evolved since he wrote his first novel at the age of 22. Terry Eagleton offers his thoughts on what it means to be secular as he reviews a new collection of essays, The Joy of Secularism, edited by George Levine and published by Princeton University Press. "Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by "Ditchens" (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment," he writes, "This present collection of essays, by contrast is a much less fiercely contested affair...Indeed, the blandness of some of the book's contributors could benefit form a judicious dose of Hitchens-like waspishness."

Elsewhere, the NS's television critic, Rachel Cooke, is captivated by Case Histories, a new detective drama set in Edinburgh and based on Kate Atkinson's crime novels. Will Self comments on the mass irrationality that is perpetuating the senseless conflict in Afghanistan, and radio critic Antonia Quirke sharpens her claws to take a dig at Radio 1Xtra's Tim Westwood. "I suppose we're talking about a natural process here, this movement from "Oh God, that man's such a twat" to "proud to be a twat" to "loveable twat" to "national treasure"...It's a very British idea", she writes "But Westwood? Somebody stop the wheel."

Further reviews and comment: the New Statesman's culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire reviews Graham Swift's latest novel, Wish You Were Here, Helen Lewis-Hasteley talks to Alan Moore about his epic novel, Jerusalem, and Maurice Glasman explain why politicians shouldn't take David Brooks so seriously as he review his newest book, The Social Animal: a Story of How Success Happens, which offers a "readable presentation of research findings from the fields of behavioural and cognitive psychology, as well as neuroscience, and also guide to how to become a better person."

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis