Gerund's Reviews > His Illegal Self

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey
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Mar 02, 09

bookshelves: immigrant-lit
Read in February, 2008

Like a political manifesto, His Illegal Self is filled with moments of transcendent brilliance that will make you go "Aha!" and, quite possibly, change your world view.

Also like a manisfesto however, this tale of the young son of American radicals is just as often a record of the author's quirks and idiosyncracies.

Peter Carey is the Man Booker Prize-winning Australian author of Oscar And Lucinda (1988) and True History Of The Kelly Gang (2001), and his distinctive writing style -- no quotation marks, third person limited narrative, pivotal plot points lying unassumingly in the middle of paragraphs -- is in full force here. Much like a politician's rhetoric, you either love or loathe Carey's writing.

Prose aside, Carey's books are often filled with lovable and not-so-lovable eccentrics, and his 10th novel is no different. Set during the early 1970s at the height of student radicalism in the US, the protagonist is 7-year-old New Yorker Che Selkirk. As his name suggests, his parents are radicals, former Harvard students who are on the run from the authorities due to their leftist terrorist activities.

For most of his young life, Che has been sheltered from the struggle of the proletraiat, living the high life with his maternal grandmother in palatial comfort on New York City's Park Avenue. Despite restricted TV access, he has some idea of his parents' notoriety from the tales of a precocious teenaged neighbour.

His dream that his parents will come back for him seems to come true one day when a woman with "honey-coloured skin and tangled hair in fifteen shades" turns up on his doorstep. He recognises the woman as his mother, and when she grabs his hand on Lexington Avenue and makes for the subway, he willing flees with her.

Carey deftly, if somewhat cheesily, paints a portrait of boyish infatuation: "They ran together to the local, and his heart was pounding and his stimach was filled with bubbles like an ice-cream float." Even after she turns out to be less than maternal -- he asks if he can call her Mom and she says to call her Dial -- his faith in her is pure, fittingly child-like.

Where the story gets interesting, yet at the same time unconvincing, is when the author switches to Dial's prespective. Unsurprisingly by this point, it is revealed that she isn't really Che's mother but Anna Xenos, his former babysitter. The daughter of Greek immigrants who has had but an uncomfortable relationship with the leftist movement despite being from the workimg class it glorifies, Dial (short for dialetic) has just managed to land a coveted teaching job at Vassar College when she agrees, for reasons that are laughably inexplicable, to help take Che to visit his fugitive mother in Philadelphia.

But the mother ends up blowing herself up before the familial reunion, and Dial finds herself a wanted person suspected of terrorism and kidnapping. Confused, she turns to the revolutionaries for help, and ends up fleeing to Australia with Che in tow.

Carey attempts to make the thought processes that result in Dial fleeing with the boy, rather than doing the logical thing of returning him to his grandmother, sympathetic or at least plausible, but they are neither. Her attachment to him is explained away in this mawkish paragraph: "She thought how glorious it was to be loved, she, Dial, who was not loved by anyone. She felt herself just absorb this little boy, his small damp hand dissolving in her own."

At any rate, they end up at an isolated, ramshackle hippie commune in Queensland, Australia, and here's where Carey hits his stride, as the story stops being a series of improbable events and turns into something thought-provoking and riveting.

In what is a case study of a supposedly just and enlightened society so desired by leftists, Carey revels in his descriptions of the self-righteous, rather dogmatic hippies, who steal as a matter of course and maim cats in the name of protecting birds.

Much humour is also derived from poking fun at the parochialism of Americans. As Dial ponders at one point: "She had no idea of what Australia even was. She would not have imagined a tomato would grow in Australia. Or a cucumber. She could not have named a single work of Australian literature or music. Why would she?"

While Dial valiantly attempts to make the shack a home -- “Her mother would have died to see her genius in a dump like this" -- Che comes to realise Dial is far from the invincible mother of his imaginings: "It was absolutely clear, even to a boy, that the mother could not take care of him. She had no idea of where she was or what she'd taken on."

As the narrative heads towards its dramatic end, you know you are supposed to cheer for the unexpected bonds forged between people despite trying circumstances. But ultimately, the twists and turns towards the end makes the story loses momentum and, like at the conclusion of a drawn-out revolution, you can't help but feel let-down by the aftermath.
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