Monday, February 20, 2017

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal . . . A Fast Runner, a Fast Read. . .

I've got to find ways to keep this blog current -- it's a project of my heart, really, yet it generally plays a weak second fiddle to my main blog. Or to reading itself. After all, I can't write about books if I don't read 'em, right? But I would like to post more often than I have been . . .

So perhaps I need to introduce more Short 'n' Sweet posts. . .

Like this one, where I tell you that one day a few weeks ago, when I used my barely recovering, post-Norwalk virus strength to toddle 'round the corner to the public library because I had to return two books and pick up one that I had on hold. And between returning and picking up, I had to pass by the "Fast Reads" shelf. The books here are generally very popular ones, usually fairly recent releases, and they can only be borrowed for a week, with substantial fines for late returns. I've read all of Lawrence Hill's fiction, taught a few of his titles in several classes, and have had The Illegals on a Want-To-Read list for months, so despite the 400 pages, I decided I couldn't resist the challenge.

Did I manage, and was it worth it? "Yes" to both questions. In fact, when my energy level slumped down to the bottom of the bucket the following day, having a fast-paced, reasonably light novel to read was just what I needed. I'd already more than met the month's quota for mystery novels, but while The Illegals -- concerned as it is with serious and substantive political and social issues -- allowed me to feel somewhat more intellectually engaged, it leavened its ethical and moral obligations with likeable, rounded characters (some of whom I was amused and pleased to recognise from Hill's earlier novels, Some Great Thing and Any Known Blood) and intrigue and tension enough to keep a mystery reader happy.

The themes of the novel -- citizenship, the humanity of refugees, corruption and collusion in politics at national and international levels, the consequences of colonialism and globalization -- are developed through the plight of a young man who is forced to flee Zantoroland, a (fictional) African country and whose only hope of finding his way again resides in his potential as a long-distance runner. Health complications and the discovery that his sister is in danger (I'm avoid so many spoilers here. . . ) add some lively twists and turns -- as does his meeting with a barely adolescent student determined to make a video that will uncover some of the unsavoury political realities governing the poor black classes in Freedom State, the (also fictional) country to which our protagonist has fled, and in which he is "Illegal." There's a feisty black female journalist, who's also a talented wheelchair athlete, and there's a wonderfully subversive and sympathetic elderly white woman who . . . Nope, can't say more about that for fear of Spoiling. Ditto re the romance that develops with a certain. . . oh, stop! You'll have to find out for yourself. . .

The novel's current action takes place in the near future, and although it's set in fictional countries, the world is ours, viewed through the lens of Satire. But it's a gentle satire, one which allows us to get caught up in the characters' lives, to feel their humanity and imagine what it might be like to be considered "illegal," how it's even possible that we could apply that label to anyone. In other words, it's disturbingly relevant to what's happening in North America and Europe right now, even more so in its emphasis on the difficult and dangerous role journalists play in exposing "inconvenient truths" which some prefer to decry as "fake news."

At times, as I've sometimes found in Hill's work, there is a bit too much information conveyed to the reader (generally about history or politics or socio-economic realities) via conversations between characters, conversations that seem, I have to say, unlikely, at least strained.  It doesn't happen so often, though, that I don't mind overlooking the slight didacticism given that I'm amply entertained while I'm being educated. Not a bad combination, if not one I'd want in all my reading.

In short, I have a few minor reservations about the novel, but I will quite happily recommend it to you.  Although I won't recommend Norwalk virus as the best route to reading time, and I don't know that you need to read it in two days, as I did. . .

If you've read this, or if you do, let me know what you think, would you?


  1. I read The Illegal a few months ago for a book club. I found the theme of citizenship and "legality" interesting. With the election of Donald Trump, the question of citizenship is even more controversial. I agree with your observation about Hill's slightly pedantic style but I would recommend The Illegal to other readers who are interested in the issue of "undocumented " residents.

    1. Sounds as if we're on the same page here. Have you read Hill's other novels?