A strong debut with a compelling style somehow fails to nail the pacing.

S.J. Harris
Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £14.99

Eight-year-old Eustace is a very sickly boy. Confined to bed through some unknown malady, he whiles his life away dreading the thin reedy soup (the only thing he can keep down); avoiding the affections of his innumerable aunts; and chatting to us, his imaginary strangers. He used to have imaginary friends, but then they were mean to him in the park, so he stopped speaking to them.

Were the struggle to just survive not such an occupation, the oddities of his life would give him much to tell us about. One day, Eustace's brother, Frank, joined the army to meet men — which, in 1936, is a relatively ballsy thing to do — causing his mother to go into a near-terminal decline. She gave the servants the day off, and went to bed, leaving no-one to bring him any food. Quenching his hunger with narcotic cough syrup is one way to deal with that problem, but perhaps not the smartest.

Then Eustace's uncle crawls out from under his bed, on the lam from the law. His secretary follows soon after. And then the booze and prostitutes arrive…

If it's not clear, Eustace is a strange book. The plot continues getting weirder from thereon in, and ends rather abruptly in a manner which is both the logical end-point and deeply fucked-up. A short epilogue in the form of a newspaper clipping provides the only real resolution any of the characters get, and emphasises how a book which begins as a potentially realistic story told through the heightened experience of a child goes well off in a different direction.

There is a clue from the start that odd things were going to happen though, and that's Steven Harris' artwork. One of the particular joys reading comics offers is the chance of synchronicity between artistic style and thematic elements, and Harris offers that in abundance. Rendered, as best I can tell, entirely in pencil and with copious amounts of white space marking Eustace's fitful drifts into and out of sleep, the most immediately noticeable aspect of Harris' style is his figure work.

Eustace looks thin, wan and sickly; his eyes are sunken deep into his head; his straw-like blond hair is combed-over in a way which suggests premature baldness. But the thing is, those are traits he shares with all Harris' figures. Even the big, boisterous Uncle Lucian, who crawls out from under Eustace's bed and turns his life upside down, has the same cutting cheekbones and thin lips.

While the similarity starts off as a distraction, it soon becomes clear that Harris' intentions are more subtle. The similarity between Eustace and "Oubliette", the first of many prostitutes who ends up in his room, becomes a minor plot point, while Frank and Eustace's mother's appearances aren't exactly supposed to make them look hale and hearty either.

Similarly, a minor confusion at the start concerning Eustace's asides to the reader is inverted quite wonderfully as it becomes clear that they are less aside than we think — and raise further questions about the poor boy's health.

But it does all come back to that odd narrative. Weirdness is good, but when it extends to the pacing, which it does here, it's less commendable. The whole structure of the book is someone with their foot on the accelerator of a clapped-out car pointed straight at a wall. It very slowly builds steam, eventually reaches a viable cruising speed, but then never quite slows down, and, eventually and suddenly, stops, causing pain for all concerned.

It's not the first time that's happened to Eustace, either. The story has its roots in a comic Harris did on the BBC's h2g2 website (a sort of proto-wikipedia based on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy which ended up being more of a weirdly-laid-out forum where a lot of the first wave of Britain's online creatives congregated) which was itself suspended abruptly after six months. Harris' other cartoon series, Paper Cuts, lasted over two years, and he returned to the site to pencil a further three last spring.

In a way, then, the book has been a decade in the making. Given the level of craft evident from a nominally first-time graphic novelist, that's not something which will surprise you by the time you finish it. But the finish itself may be less to your taste.

Images: S.J. Harris/Jonathan Cape

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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