The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.
Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.
Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.
For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.
Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.
When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.
The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.
If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.
What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.
Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)
Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.
The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?
The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.