His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

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His Illegal Self by Peter Carey

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: An intense look at relationships, with a real feel for outsiders and landscape, conveyed in rich, beautifully-wrought prose. Much to enjoy if you can accept the slightly artificial plot.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571231546

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Seven-year-old Che Selkirk has a lot of questions. Why has he been taken away from his parental grandmother? Who is Dial, the woman who has abducted him? Is she his mother? Why have they left New York so suddenly for a hippy commune in the Australian outback? And most importantly, where is his daddy?

The little he knows about his parents he has learned from his older friend Cameron. They are something to do with SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, living 'underground' as part of the sixties US radical protest movement. And, says Cameron, they will come for him one day.

Peter Carey's novel is a touching look at the confusion and hope upon which we build our identities. In Che and Dial, and the love and anger which bind them, he shows us two naive, lost souls trying to make sense of a world where nothing is certain.

That uncertainty extends to almost every aspect of their lives. They are referred to throughout as 'the mother' and 'the boy'. As such, they become primal, feral figures. Living beyond the law and conventional society, where nobody is known by their real names, they come to realise that the only dependable thing they have is each other.

In a book where relatively little happens and the major plot event (flight to Australia) seems arbitrary, sudden and unexplained, psychological accuracy and dense, often poetic prose sustain the reader. Like his characters, we are cut adrift from conventional textual landmarks: there are no speech marks. Authorial narrative and characters' internal monologues alternate without warning. We switch between the present and flashbacks, through which Carey fills in some of the blanks in his characters' history.

Carey's skills as a writer, though, make sure you are rarely confused about what is happening or who is talking or thinking. His brief sentences and short chapters crackle with arresting, not to say occasionally puzzling, similes. Animal imagery abounds: in the first few pages alone, Che is described as a lovely insect; he and Dial slippery together as newborn goats. Comically, he describes the fugitive pair as being on the lamb.

That oneness with nature, and their feral existence in the bush, make the physical realities of the novel as acute as the emotional insights. Carey, who lived on a commune himself, uses his direct experience to bring us a convincing, visceral picture of life in direct contact with the earth (even, at one stage, living literally underground).

That immersion in the landscape, and in the minds of Che and Dial are the real rewards of this book. The paucity of action, and the curious lack of tension as sharp reality closes in on the couple, are the price we pay for Carey’s intimacy with his characters.

In compensation, we get a text which will reward re-reading, if only to savour the beauty of the words and its profound explorations of the meanings of identity, family and love.

I'd like to thank the publsihers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje.

Buy His Illegal Self by Peter Carey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy His Illegal Self by Peter Carey at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy His Illegal Self by Peter Carey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy His Illegal Self by Peter Carey at Amazon.com.


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