Tag Archives: The Year of the Runaways

Five Novels I’ve Read About Immigrants

Cover imageI’ve travelled a reasonable amount but I’ve never lived anywhere except my own country. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by the immigrant experience. There’s been a wave of fiction exploring the plight of refugees recently but all except one of the five novels below are about choosing to move to country rather than fleeing one. I’ve written about several of them before but have only reviewed one on this blog for which there’s a link.

Abudulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea seems to capture beautifully how it feels to be exiled from your own country. Told not to reveal his ability to speak English by the man who sold him his ticket, an elderly asylum seeker finds himself blurting out a sentence to his kindly social worker when she tells him she has found an interpreter. When he learns the interpreter’s identity, Saleh realises that they are already bound together by an intricate series of events which brought about the downfall of Latif’s family and his own imprisonment. Written in delicately evocative prose, By the Sea unravels the complexities of Saleh and Latif’s past offering hope of redemption.

Also set in the UK, Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is about a group of young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield. Sahota vividly depicts the precarious lives of these economic migrants, worked like dogs on a building site by day and returning to sleep in squalid conditions at night. Sahota unfolds each of their histories at the beginning of his novel so that we come to understand the events that have brought them to the UK. Woven through the narrative is the Cover imagestory of a British Sikh woman who decides to defy both the law and her family in the face of what she sees as injustice. It’s a remarkable novel, although sadly not one that those who believe immigrants to be scroungers and layabouts are likely to read.

Skipping across the Atlantic to the USA, Chitra Viraraghavan’s The Americans explores the lives of a disparate set of immigrants scattered across the country, all with a connection to Tara Kumar visiting from Madras. Lavi is her fifteen-year-old niece – all hormones and crushes. Shantanu is the uncle, illegally in the US and entangled in his boss’ criminal web while Madhulika is the friend whose arranged marriage is floundering. The novel is set in 2005, sufficiently distant from 9/11 for its full effects to be felt on anyone with a brown skin, many of whom find themselves regarded with even more suspicion than they did before. There’s the odd jarring note but Viraraghavan manages to keep control of her many stories weaving them into a rich tapestry of immigrant life.

The son of working-class Cuban immigrants, Oscar Hijuelos explores both first and second generations’ experience through Lydia, a New York cleaning lady, in The Empress of the Splendid Season. Anyone who passes her on the street might think of her, if they notice her at all, as just another dowdy drudge but Lydia has a very different view of herself. After a quarrel with her father when she was sixteen, she left the trappings of a well-to-do family in Cuba but has never relinquished her sense of superiority. From her ambitions for her children and her cherished memories of her youthful beauty to her tentative feelings of friendship for one of her kindly employers and the uncovering of the secrets of others, Lydia’s story is told through a series of closely linked vignettes in this tender portrait of a woman who refuses to accept her second-class status.

 Cover imageJhumpa Lahiri turns the first generation/second generation perspective on its head in The Namesake through the lens of Gogol Ganguli whose parents arrive in Massachusetts from Calcutta in the early days of their arranged marriage. Out in the world, pursuing his career as an engineer, his father happily adjusts to life in America but his mother does not, staying at home, missing her family and bring her son up as an Indian rather than an American. Lumbered with the name of his father’s favourite writer, Gogol finds himself torn between the expectations of his parents and becoming a part of the American world in this empathetic, funny novel about conflicting loyalties and identity.

Any books about immigrants you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 2

Cover imageThe first batch of February paperbacks kicked off with one of my books of 2015 as does the second: Sara Taylor’s The Shore which I was delighted to see on both the Baileys Prize longlist and the newly resurrected Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist last year. The novel is made up of a set of interconnecting stories that span a century and a half in the lives of the inhabitants of three small islands off the coast of Virginia. The Shore is the name given to the islands, all within a stone’s throw of each other, and Taylor’s novel focuses on the two families who dominate them – one impoverished the other prosperous – both intertwined through marriage. You need to keep your wits about you – characters pop up then disappear only to reappear again – but Taylor’s careful to tie in every loose end meticulously. I miss that gorgeous hardback jacket, though.

Oneworld is a small publisher who had a very good year last year. They’re the publishers of Marlon James’ Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings. They also publish my second choice, Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things which sounds entirely different from James’ novel. An anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, is opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move away from New York, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email was still a bit of a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.Cover image

The next title was also shortlisted for the Man Booker, and appeared alongside Sara Taylor’s The Shore on the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist. Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is the story of thirteen young Indian men sharing a house in Sheffield, each with their own story and all in search of a better life. The publishers bravely compare Sahota’s novel with Rohinton Mistry’s superb A Fine Balance which makes the sceptic in me raise her eybrows but Kamila Shamsie rates it highly, apparently. Nothing would please me more than to be able to include a new novel by Mistry in one of these previews. It’s been such a long time that I wonder if he’ll ever publish one again.

The Power of the DogThis last title is here almost as an act of faith. Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog is published by the same imprint that brought us the wonderful Stoner and they claim that it’s in the same league thereby setting the bar extraordinarily high. Phil and George are brothers, owners of a large Montana ranch. They’re the antithesis of each other but have shared the same room for forty years since they were boys. When George marries a widow, overturning this lifelong arrangement, Phil sets out to destroy her. We’re promised a ‘devastating twist at the end’. Annie Proulx rates it enough to have written an afterword so I’m thrusting my cynicism aside.

That’s it for February paperbacks. If you’d like to know more, a click on the title will take you to my review for The Shore and to Waterstones for the last three. If you’d like to catch up with the rest of February’s new novels the first batch of paperbacks are here and the hardbacks are here and here.

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award 2015: A boo-hoo post

InvitationYou may have dim memories of this particular literary prize. It’s been in abeyance for several years but has just been relaunched with an announcement of the shortlist for this year’s award. Contenders must be writers of literary fiction, non-fiction or poetry, aged thirty-five and under. Past performance suggests that previous judges have had a good eye for spotting talent – winners have included Zadie Smith, Naomi Alderman, Robert MacFarlane and Sarah Waters. Quite a starry list, these days. I’ve only read one of the novels on this year’s shortlist – Sara Taylor’s The Shore – but if that’s anything to go by the standard is just as high as ever.

Why the boo-hoo, you might ask, given that I seem pretty enthusiastic about it? Well you could call it sour grapes. I was delighted to be invited to a bloggers’ event celebrating the relaunch, and even more so when I found that not only was it in the afternoon – I live quite some way from London – but the venue was the Groucho club. I’ve always fancied seeing what all the fuss is about, and who knows given that events come to a close by 5 pm there might even be cake, not to mention an interesting bunch of writers and bloggers to get to know. Sadly, the event is to be held next Saturday and thanks to a prior arrangement I can’t go. Anyway, enough of my boo-hooing. I hope any bloggers reading this who are able to go will have a lovely time. I’ll look forward to your posts.