This novel by Sunjeev Sahota is the sixth of the Booker nominees that I’ve read for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel and the third (along with Lila and A Brief History of Seven Killings) that I’d be happy to include on the shortlist. I say that not because it’s a perfect book but because I was so very swept up in the complex story it tells.
The book focuses on four young people living in Sheffield. Three–Tarlochan, Avtar, and Randeep–have come from India looking for a brighter future. The fourth, Narinder, has come from London as a visa-wife for Randeep. For one year, their fortunes are intertwined, and each one’s choices affect the fates of the others, sometimes in ways they could never have predicted.
Although they didn’t know each other, Avtar and Randeep were connected before they came to England. They lived for a time in the same town, and Avtar fell in love with Randeep’s sister, Lakhpreet. The two men came to England together, Avtar as a student and Randeep as a newlywed, and Lakhpreet urges Avtar to look after her sometime unstable brother, an obligation that is not always in Avtar’s best interest.
Tarlochan also comes from India, but his background is entirely different. A rickshaw driver from the untouchable chamaar caste, he faced discrimination and violence at home. Life in England isn’t easy, but he can earn money, and he does whatever he can to maximize his income. He ends up living and working alongside Randeep and Avtar as they all try to make money they couldn’t make in India.
Narinder’s story is altogether different. A devout Sikh born in England, she wants nothing more than to do the right thing. Her journey was the one that most captivated me. This was partly because I was fascinated to read about a Sikh character—I don’t recall encountering one in fiction before—but I also loved how Sahota really took on how difficult it can be to discern just how to be a person of faith. As a Christian, I found aspects of Narinder’s journey strongly familiar. Her belief in self-sacrifice, whatever the cost, runs through much of Christianity as well and can lead to similarly difficult consequences.
Much of the novel concerns itself with the cost of doing the “right” thing, and it does so without ever glibly stating that it’ll all work out for the best in the long run. In fact, you could argue that it does the opposite. This is not a book where doing good pays off. Doing good is honored in the narrative, but so is taking care of yourself. In fact, sometimes taking care of yourself is the only way to survive, as Tarlochan learned the hard way. It’s a complicated dance, and I appreciated that Sahota just lets it be complicated.
As I said above, it isn’t a perfect book. The way Avtar and Randeep’s journeys were entwined sometimes made it hard to tell them apart. And I’m still not sure how I felt about the epilogue. I wanted to know where the characters ended up, but it’s hard for an epilogue not to feel tacked on. Still, in this case, that tacked on epilogue offers yet another way of bringing home the point that sacrifice may never pay off. Without it, I could easily have imagined things working out best for the people who gave the most, which would undercut so much of the story that came before.
The characters go through some difficult times in their year together. As immigrants without a social safety net, they get taken advantage of and have no recourse. It is at times a raw and difficult story, and it’s a story that I believed in and was moved by.
(And if you choose to read between the lines there regarding my feelings toward one of the other Booker contenders, you’re not entirely wrong.)