Booker season: Breaking our hearts

Empathy is a novelist’s greatest gift. Whether it is transforming the wave of migrants crossing into Europe into three individuals who the reader roots for, as in Sunjeev Sahota’s “Year of the Runaways,” or telling the story of four friends in a “work of lasting emotional impact” as 2015 Man Booker Prize judge Ellah Allfrey said of Hanya Yangihara’s “A Little Life,” the last two books on the shortlist have empathy to share.


“Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota (Knopf, 468 pages, $27.95)

It is easier to judge when they come as part of a “wave” or “horde” or “swarm” crossing our borders than when their stories are told and the difficulty and heartbreak of their lives demand we treat them as people, as individuals, as ourselves.

Avtar, Randeep and Tochi are running from the poverty, joblessness, and violence of India. They are willing to do whatever it takes to make it in the UK’s Sheffield: including stealing from and abandoning each other as jobs get increasingly scarce.

Avtar comes on a student visa but the demands of supporting his family in India (and paying back the thugs who loaned him the money to migrate) mean he never truly goes to college. He’ll stay up late at night after finishing two jobs to study, but the lack of time and lack of English will always hold him back.

Tochi, whose family is caught in an outbreak of caste violence, comes to England with nothing to lose. He by far takes the most dangerous route: hiding in produce trucks as they cross Europe. “I’ll come back,” he says, embodying for a moment all of their hopes, all the reasons that drove them to migrate. “I’ll come back a rich man who can choose his own life.”

Randeep is the least capable of the migrants, from a middle class background forced to migrate when his father loses his job and the family’s status quo is put into jeopardy. He has the easiest route, marrying visa wife Narinder.

Narinder is perhaps the most surprising of the characters. A UK-born Sikh, she has lived a life devoted to religion and charity but she is shocked by the desperation of those trying to get to Europe. Randeep is her good deed, but nothing goes smoothly and Narinder discovers that wanting to help and being able to help are as far apart as Sheffield and Bihar.


“A Little Life” by Hanya Yangihara (Doubleday, 720 pages, $30)

Having read through the 2015 shortlist, I can say without a doubt that “A Little Life” is my choice for the winner. It is the longest and most difficult book but by far the most rewarding.

It tells the story of four friends who meet in college as they grow through life, centering on Jude whose childhood history of sex abuse and violence his friends struggle to grasp and fail to find a way to help him through.

“Most people are easy: their unhappinesses are our unhappinesses, their sorrows are understandable, their bouts of self-loathing are fast-moving and negotiable. But his were not. We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed.”

I was scared to start “A Little Life” given the reputation for emotional turmoil it has built up in other reviews, such as “difficult to put down, even in the midst of sobbing,” “inspires as much as it devastates” and “there are truths here that are almost too difficult to bear.”

And it was a hard read. Sobbing did happen. Not the usual damp-eyes I get with sad books, but the chest-wracking, mucus-accompanied weeping that accompanies real grief. The reviews are true. “A Little Life” will give you the feels, and not the good kind either. But you should read it, because it is a staggering, stunning work.

As Yangihara said in her longlist interview: “The one thing I didn’t want this book to be (and the one thing that I think, for better or worse, no one will accuse it of being) is polite. I wanted everything — the horror, the love, the distress, the compassion, the fortune, the misfortune — to feel heightened, to be pushed beyond what’s expected or even what’s wise … It should feel like a binge, somewhat, an experience that demands your attention and surrender.”

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