In the Critics this week

Robert Skidelsky on British industry, Richard J Evans on Norman Stone, Olivia Laing on Sheila Heti, Megan Abbott on Detroit and Ryan Gilbey on Quentin Tarantino.


In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the economic historian and biographer of Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, reviews The Slow Death of British Industry by Nicholas Comfort. “In the early 1950s,” Skidelsky writes, “Britain was an industrial giant. Today, it is an industrial pygmy.” The reasons for this sorry decline are various, Skidelsky suggests. But “running through this history is a lack of continuity: government policy towards taxation and incentives continually changed, long-term aims were repeatedly sacrificed to short-term financial exigencies, projects were taken up and abandoned when they became too costly …” But it needn’t have been like that. It was a historic mistake, Skidelsky argues, for Britain to rely so heavily in recent decades on financial services. “Like individuals, governments should hold balanced portfolios … Governments … need to promote a balanced economy.”

Also in Books: historian Richard J Evans reviews World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone (“Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book is its unremitting dullness”); Olivia Laing reviews How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti and Wild by Cheryl Strayed (“Though Strayed’s book is both touching and instructive it’s Heti’s …that will stay with me”); Lesley Chamberlain on Roberto Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire (“a kind of self-parodying continentalism for the coffee table”); Catherine Taylor enjoys Deborah Levy’s short story collection Black Vodka (“There is a sexy hauteur in Deborah Levy’s prose reminiscent of the voice of Marianne Faithfull”); American novelist Megan Abbott reviews Mark Binelli’s The last Days of Detroit (“the metaphorical distance between the city and its hostile suburbs is immense, treacherous”). In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Jared Diamond about his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? “Life in Africa,” Diamond tells Derbyshire, “is socially rich but materially poor, whereas life in the west is materially rich but socially poor.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (“Portraying the perpetrators of slavery as merely monstrous, and their victims as holy, does a disservice to the oppressed …”); Rachel Cooke wishes the BBC hadn’t tried to adapt PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories (“[Some] funny books … have never and will never work on television”); Antonia Quirke is baffled by Smooth Radio’s Osmonds obsession; and Alexandra Coghlan pays tribute to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, whose centenary is celebrated this year. PLUS Will Self's Real Meals.

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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