Show Hide image

A year in books

The literary highlights of 2012.

Hope: a Tragedy
Shalom Auslander, Picador, 352pp, £7.99

Solomon Kugel, the protagonist of Shalom Auslander’s scabrously funny debut novel is a Jewish New Yorker transplanted to the countryside upstate. Kugel discovers that the source of the unpleasant smell coming from his attic is Anne Frank, now a foul-mouthed octogenarian who complains bitterly about Elie Wiesel’s book sales. She is the embodiment of a history that cannot, or should not, be sentimentalised.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson,
Volume IV: the Passage of Power Robert A Caro
Bodley Head, 736pp, £35

The fourth volume of Robert Caro’s huge and riveting biography of Lyndon B Johnson takes more than 700 pages to deal with just six years of its subject’s career – 1958-64. The period covers his abortive attempt to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960; the vice-presidency (agony for a man who’d been aiming for the top job for almost 30 years); the assassination of John F Kennedy; and LBJ’s subsequent accession to the presidency.

Fire in the Belly: the Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz
Cynthia Carr
Bloomsbury, 624pp, £25

Cynthia Carr’s biography of the American artist David Wojnarowicz is many things at once: a group portrait of the leading lights of the downtown art scene in New York in the early 1980s; an evocation of an urban landscape that succumbed long ago to the homogenising effects of gentrification; and a memorial to the thousands of New Yorkers who died from Aids (and official indifference to their plight).

Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £12.99

Absolution is the young American writer Patrick Flanery’s first novel. It is an assured and intelligent exploration of the growing pains of post-apartheid South Africa. Flanery’s protagonist is Sam Leroux, a young academic who returns home to write a biography of a literary grande dame named Clare Wald, who is also a veteran of the struggles against the old regime.

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Fourth Estate, 528pp, £8.99

Chad Harbach’s good-natured and charming first novel suffered from hasty comparisons with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom(made largely, it seemed, on the basis of there being scenes in both books involving a lost wedding ring). But, unlike Franzen, Harbach doesn’t lunge for world-historical significance. The Art of Fielding, a campus novel with a sporting theme, is much less solemn than Freedomand all the better for it.

The Patagonian Hare: a Memoir
Claude Lanzmann
Atlantic Books, 544pp, £9.99

Claude Lanzmann – the French writer, intellectual and documentary-maker – has had an extraordinary life. He was a member of the resistance as a teenager. He became Simone de Beauvoir’s lover in his twenties. He collaborated with Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre on the journal Les Temps Modernes, and later directed Shoah, a nine-and-a-half hour film about the Holocaust that is his masterpiece. There are gaps and blind spots in Lanzmann’s story (notably where the politics of the Middle East are concerned), and an impregnable amour propre, but it’s a tremendous tale all the same.

The New Few . . . Or a Very British Oligarchy: Power and Inequality in Britain Now
Ferdinand Mount
Simon & Schuster, 320pp, £18.99

Ferdinand Mount belongs to that growing band of penitent devotees of Margaret Thatcher who are now counting the costs of policies whose consequences they were unable to foresee. This is not to say that Mount thinks Thatcher should take sole responsibility for the development of the “new oligarchy”. “The dismal truth is that pretty much every government in the past 30 years has, wittingly or unwittingly, helped the oligarch’s cause in one way or another.”

Zadie Smith Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £18.99

Zadie Smith’s fourth novel has a brokenbacked structure that doesn’t quite work. However, it also contains some of the most exhilirating prose this anxious and restless writer has written – particularly in a spectacular, 80-odd-page stream-of consciousness opening section.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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