After reading The Shore by Sara Taylor and The Spring of Kasper Meier by Ben Fergusson earlier this month, I’ve been reading the other two books shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award. They are ‘The Year of the Runaways’ by Sunjeev Sahota and this year’s winner ‘Loop of Jade’ by Sarah Howe.
Loop of Jade is Sarah Howe’s debut collection of poetry which has also been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Howe was born in Hong Kong to an English father and Chinese mother and ‘Loop of Jade’ is a vivid exploration of her dual cultural heritage, based on her own travels in China and observations about her identity (‘Others’, ‘Innumerable’) as well as stories about her mother born under China’s one-child policy (‘Tame’, ‘Crossing to Guangdong’). The title of the collection refers to a bracelet given to Howe’s adoptive mother which has since been passed on to Howe herself. There is a lot of variety in the style, structure and stanzas of the poems and there is a strong narrative which runs through the collection based around central themes of identity and the treatment of women in patriarchal society. At the blogger’s event in November, Howe gave a powerful reading of ‘Tame’, a poem which, to me, still stands out as the finest example of her exquisite use of imagery in the collection. Many congratulations to Howe for winning this year’s prize.
The Year of the Runaways is Sunjeev Sahota’s second novel which follows the lives of Indian immigrants in Sheffield. Tarlochan, also known as Tochi, is a lower caste immigrant and former rickshaw driver whose family was heavily persecuted in India. After his father has a breakdown, Randeep leaves his middle-class family in India and has a visa-wife Narinder, a British Sikh who has a number of secrets of her own. Meanwhile, Avtar is heavily in debt and wants to earn enough money to marry Randeep’s sister Lakhpreet.
Much of the first half of the book focuses on Tochi, Avtar and Randeep’s lives in India and how they came to arrive in the UK in the early 2000s. The gap between their expectations and what they actually encounter is particularly stark. Most importantly, Sahota doesn’t oversimplify or sensationalise the events and characters he describes and the Sikh terms in the dialogue are mostly understandable in context. Rather than making overtly political statements about the broader issues at stake, the book concentrates on the personal circumstances and everyday events in the characters’ lives which are no less significant and thought-provoking. I will always remember the scene where former call centre worker Randeep turns up on the doorstep of an elderly man in Doncaster he had befriended over the phone several months ago believing he would be able to live with him.
‘The Year of the Runaways’ is an important and powerful book which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize earlier this year as well as the Young Writer of the Year Award. It is my personal favourite from a very strong shortlist and I look forward to discovering more books through the prize in years to come.