The last two contenders in the Booker shortlist. Chigozie Obioma's "The Fisherman" is set in Nigeria post civil war and Sunjeev Sahota's "The Year of the Runaways" is set in the UK, with the backstory in India. Having lived in all three countries, the background narrative formed as important a part of the novels as the individual tales of the characters themselves for me - and neither disappointed in this aspect.
The Fishermen - the tale of a large Igbo family of five sons and one daughter. The father is somewhat pompous, but is well-educated and has a good job, causing him to live away from his family. This leaves his wife to attend to her daughter who is still a babe in arms, five young sons and a job. The boys run free, as I remember doing at the same age when a child in Nigeria. They take to fishing in the local river about which there are a whole raft of superstitions, leading to a severe punishment from their father, shortly after their encounter with a local madman/seer.
It gradually becomes clear that he has forecast the death of the eldest son at the hands of one of his siblings. Understandably, this drives a wedge between the boys and one watches in horror as the eldest brother drives his closest sibling to engage in violent confrontation, ending with the forecast being fulfilled. The family have not only to deal with the death of their eldest son at the hands of their second son, but also with the his subsequent suicide. It doesn't end there and the family continues to fall apart with the third and fourth son deciding they must avenge the double deaths by killing the madman themselves. They are successful, but the younger is caught and jailed, whilst the older of the two goes on the run.
We are told the story from the point of view of Benjamin, the fourth son. It is a beautifully observed, descriptive work of male childhood. There's that freedom to roam, hitched to the wonderful child-like belief that they can't be seen getting up to mischief if they haven't seen anyone watching them. Their mother is clearly loved, but is almost a cipher - the provider of care and nourishment, emotional and very dependent upon her husband. Their father is the rod of the family, his iron will (and disciplinary methods) ensure that the boys follow the straight path - until he is not there. The male drive towards violence and vengeance was powerfully expressed and - as a female reader - was watched with a sense of hopeless inevitability.
A highly recommended read.
"The Year of the Runaways" is a year in the life of four Indians in the UK, fleshed out by their backstories. We hear the tale of Avtar, who sells a kidney in order to finance his journey to the UK, of Randeep who agrees to a visa-marriage with Narinder. Both whom travel to the UK in order to form a bridge for their family to follow them later but, as crucial, they must send funds to India to support their families. Narinder is UK-born and a highly religious young woman. The reasons why she seeks the visa-marriage are complex and she runs away from home in order to fulfill this conract. Finally, to Tochi, the lowest of the low in caste terms, who leaves India after his family is brutally wiped out.
The young men end up working in the illegal system, lowly paid, badly treated, with no security or support. Avtar works two jobs but can see no way to save for his future - with Randeep's sister. Eventually the strain of living this way causes him to virtually lose his leg. Randeep is young and vulnerable. He has little experience of life and goes to the UK to get away from a terrible mistake he has made at College in India where he almost rapes a girl. He is weak and very dependent upon the kindness of others. Tochi is tough, a loner, strong and a tremendously hard worker, he tries to keep himself to himself. But people are drawn to him, until they find out what caste he is from ... at which point he is reviled and treated with disgust. The young woman Narinder is a pious, high-born sikh, an obedient and dutiful daughter. The strength of her beliefs take her to India to volunteer and care for the poor. Her life is turned upside down by the family she encounters there and she decides on this most unexpected course of action - to defy her family, to leave them for a year, to provide one young man with a chance of a better life in the UK - always intending to return, to marry the man chosen for her and resume her dutiful life.
The big subjects in this book are many. That life in India for those without money, or born into low caste, is one of the harshest of realities. That the burden of family duty is immense - regardless of wealth or caste - something we find hard to truly comprehend. Lastly, that the strength of feeling and prejudice over caste is still powerfully present.
The Epilogue was odd and unexpected. I'm not sure if we needed to "see" that our central characters all made it through to a decent life - if not one of happiness.
This book certainly adds background and - hopefully - understanding and humanity to the current migrant situation.
The last two contenders - the results will be out soon. Do you have a favourite, or one you believe will win? Are they the same?