In the Critics this week

Ryan Gilbey on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Douglas Hurd on David Hannay, George Saunders interviewed and Kate Mossman discusses Les Misérables.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Steven Spielberg’s upcoming release, Lincoln. Gilbey praises screenwriter Tony Kushner for his creation of a “fine-grained procedural drama” that is abundant with “unique structural and linguistic strengths”. Spielberg doesn’t go without praise, though, particularly where  the portrayal of slavery is concerned. Gilbey notes that this is a significant improvement on his 1997 brush with the subject in courtroom drama Amistad. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as the 56-year-old president Abraham Lincoln is “genuinely mesmerising” with interesting comparisons drawn with the younger Lincoln depicted by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr Lincoln. Gilbey picks up on the questionably unintentional continuity between the characters, and the “baked-in wisdom and joyfulness” that is clear in both actors’ portrayals. Despite painting an “intimately gruelling” picture of the civil war, Spielberg achieves a kind of “magisterial grandeur” in the film’s cinematography.

In Books: Douglas Hurd reviews Britain’s Quest for a Role: a Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN by diplomat David Hannay (“We shall need plenty of new Hannays if the opportunities of this century are not to be thrown away”); Maragret Drabble discusses John Burnside’s collection of short stories, Something Like Happy (“His characters are are reconciled to being almost happy when most alone”); Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart is reviewed by Stuart Maconie (“It is a largely consuming book, crammed with detail, anecdote and juxtapositions”); John Sutherland on Lara Feigel’s The Love-charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (“An innovative exercise in this genre”); and Helen Lewis gives her opinion on Navel Gazing: One Woman’s Quest for a Size Normal by Anne H Putnam (“There are barely any characters other than the author and her stomach . . . it’s a one-woman-and-her-body-show”).

In the Books Interview, Sophie Elmhirst talks to George Saunders about his latest novel, Tenth of December. Saunders says: “When you bring morality up in relation to fiction, people think you’re propagandising and that, I think, is totally anti-art”.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Kate Mossman sings the praises of the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables; Rachel Cooke is unimpressed by the second series of Borgen on BBC4; Antonia Quirke discusses the power of Radio 4’s Open Country; and Leo Hollis talks design at Missorts art project in Bristol.

Steven Spielberg with Daniel Day-Lewis at the recent premier of film Lincoln. Photograph: Getty Images
ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

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