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Saturday, September 19, 2015

Review of "The Illegal" by Lawrence Hill

   4.5 Stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I hesitated to read it because I heard it was about a marathon runner, and running is not a sport in which I have much interest.  I’m glad I overcame my reticence because the book is about so much else and, considering the news from Europe, proves to be so timely.  The book is about undocumented refugees and the uncertainty they face:  will they be accepted, persecuted or deported?

Keita Ali is a refugee from the island nation of Zantoroland; he has to flee because his father was a journalist critical of the dictator ruling the country and because he is a member of an ethnic minority.  Dissenters and members of the minority are routinely tortured and killed so many escape to Freedom State where they live in AfricTown, a makeshift settlement of shipping containers.  Freedom State is the island nation closest to Zantoroland; its economy was built using slaves from Zantoroland, and though slavery was abolished, the descendants of those slaves are marginalized, and undocumented migrants are deported to the country from which they fled.  Keita is an elite runner who hopes to use his talent to win his freedom and citizenship in Freedom State, but he ends up running from authorities and running to save a family member. 

Zantoroland and Freedom State (with its wonderfully ironic name) are fictional countries separated by the fictional Ortiz Sea in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Undoubtedly, the author used invented countries so they can represent any number of actual countries.  Zantoroland could be Cuba or Vietnam or Mexico or Syria and Freedom State could be the United States or Canada or any number of European countries.

The characters are many.  There are villains:  corrupt politicians, power-seekers, money-launderers, torturers, and thugs.  There are also the good people who are willing to subvert the laws in order to assist those labelled as illegals.  The reader will find him/herself cheering for the latter.  The major characters are realistic, possessing both good and bad traits.  Lula DiStefano, for example, helps refugees by providing shelter and food in AfricTown, but she also exploits them to her benefit.  Rocco Calder is a minister in the corrupt government of Freedom State but he struggles with his role.   Viola Hill and John Falconer are both ambitious, in-your-face investigative journalists, but they are determined to expose some unpleasant truths

The book examines serious issues, especially the treatment of refugees and undocumented immigrants.  I loved Viola’s argument that “it was fair to accuse somebody of doing something illegal but not to say that they were illegal” (71).  The novel also touches on racism, ageism, discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, the tenuous position of mixed-race people, global inequity, and the hypocrisy of the richest nations not acknowledging that their economies owe much to the marginalized.

Despite its seriousness, the book also has comic relief.  Often it stems from the antics of Viola Hill and John Falconer as they relentlessly pursue the truth, making many uncomfortable in their willingness to ask incendiary questions.  There are also the tongue-in-cheek comments about Canada:  “The tenth [runner] was a Canadian.  But he didn’t really count as a Canadian, because he was black and born in Kenya. . . . Canada, all the way across the world, had been smart about recruiting the immigrant, giving him Canadian citizenship.  Now the country of snow and ice had a chance to win a medal in the next Olympic marathon” (126).

And there is suspense and romance.  Will Keita be able to win the races and get sufficient money in time to rescue a threatened family member?  Will he be able to elude the marathon agent wanting money from him?  Will he be able to avoid the authorities who want to deport him?  Can Keita really trust Lula and Ivernia to help him?  Should he have a relationship with Candace who hides from him her occupation in the service of Freedom State? 

Marathon running serves as a perfect metaphor.  Keita runs to freedom in Freedom State, but he ends up running from imprisonment in that state.  Citizens of Freedom State run from the truth about their government and its deportation policies.  A marathon is a long endurance test.  Refugees undertake marathons (three-week journeys on overcrowded fishing boats) to escape Zantoroland but then run figurative marathons every day, trying to avoid the deportation raids.  An elderly woman must survive a six-month administrative marathon in order to keep her independence. 

One element that bothered me is how the villains tend to reveal all when they think they have nothing to lose.  This happens a couple of times (354, 372).  The confessions of an important figure (349, 360) are also made to two people at very convenient times.  Such plot manipulation is a weakness.

In the end, the conflicts are tidily resolved.  All loose ends are tied up.  But, like all good literature, this book will have a lingering effect.  It raises moral issues that people should consider and debate.  The novel is set in 2018 but its moral questions are relevant to the present.