In the Critics this week

Linda Grant on British Jewish writers, Naomi Alderman's exlusive short story and Jemima Khan intervi

In keeping with this week’s overarching theme for the magazine – Who speaks for British Jews? – our critic at large, Linda Grant, writes about the disparity of critical acclaim afforded American Jewish and British Jewish writers. “The US [Jewish experience] dazzles and obliterates, whereas the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice.”

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst speaks to Tim Parks about his new novel The Server, the story of a woman seeking silence and self-examination on a meditative retreat. “I’m intrigued by the idea of setting a novel in a place where most people are silent,” he says. “Also, I wanted to explore a bit more the whole questions of whether these people are not, in fact, involved in something that is causing an awful lot of pain for them.”

Elsewhere in Books: Sarah Churchwell reviews The Astaires: Fred and Adele; Jane Shilling reviews Pico Iyer’s “counterbiography” The Man within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me; and Naomi Alderman contributes an exclusive piece of short fiction, All the sorrow that came after, which flits between the doomed 13th century romance of a Christian man and a Jewish woman, and contemporary recollection of the author’s own study of Jewish history.

Elsewhere, Jemima Khan interview Eva Schloss, holocaust survivor, author, and stepsister of Anne Frank.  “I didn’t have any inkling that she might write a diary with such meaning,” says Schloss of the 13-year-old Frank. “She was a child, interested in clothes and fashion, in hairstyles, in boyfriends.” Schloss is the author of two books, Eva’s Story and The Promise. Hers is a life of trauma and loss of faith, later of strength and sharing her story. Of her Auschwitz tattoo she says, “I’m glad to have it because schoolchildren always want to see it. I say to them it’s very important for you to remember because when we are not around in 20 or 30 years, a new generation of youngsters will have to keep the story alive and say, yes I’ve seen somebody, I’ve seen their tattoo.”

Also in the Critics: Rachel Lichtenstein recalls a childhood spend in the jewellery world of Hatton Garden, the subject of her new book Diamond Street: the Hidden World of Hatton Garden; Ryan Gilbey reviews Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom; Rachel Cooke finds Sky’s new drama Hit and Miss a bit of a miss; and Will Self discusses his (half) Jewish identity in “Madness of Crowds”.

A photograph of diarist Anne Frank, whose stepsister Eva Schloss survived Auschwitz and later wrote two memoirs.
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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