Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
His Illegal Self
by Peter Carey
ISBN: 9781741665352, Hardcover, Feb 2008, $45
Che Selkirk is a boy whose parents, members of the increasingly violent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), have both disappeared, leaving him with his very rich grandmother. At the age of eight, a woman that Che recognises as his mother suddenly arrives and kidnaps him, taking him from New York to a remote town in Australia. This is how Illegal Self begins, and Che’s adventure through hunger, love and loss becomes a coming of age tale as he starts to understand who he is and where his future lies.
On the simplest of levels, the book is a fast-paced race across the globe as Che and the mother figure known to Che as “Dial” attempt to hide from the police and carve an existence for themselves. The plot is propelled by the readers’ sense of dislocation in the distortions between the two narrative voices. Both Che and Dial are presented as equals – joint narrators in this story, but their stories aren’t identical. The reader is put in the uncomfortable position of being between them, unable to discount either the intensity of Che’s needs, or the combination of confusion and desire which motivates Dial. Both need one another, and continue to work together at avoiding the truth and avoiding the law, at the same time they find themselves removed from their usual lives and co-opted for causes they don’t believe in.
As in so many of Peter Carey’s novels, real love and visual artifice become the two forces that move the narrative along. It’s a search for a truth that isn’t nearly as obvious as one might think. It’s about the way love crisscrosses us – marks us, makes us whole, and hurts us at the same time. It isn’t just the love — both real and imagined — between Che and Dial, but also the odd love circulating uncomfortably between Dial, Che’s father, and the self-sufficient “hippy” Trevor who they meet in Australia. Dial’s growing sense of love, and the confusion that causes her pervades the story, as in this passage:
Oh Christ, she thought, what have I done? This had been an unblemished boy and the most remarkable thing about him had not been his handsome father’s face but his perfect trust, the way he put his hand in hers and sat beside her on the bus, so close, resting his cheek against her arm. His eyes had been limped, grey, in some lights, a lovely sulphur blue. His hair had been tousled, curly. It was hard not to touch him all the time. And here he was, his soul all curled up and fearful of attack. (24)
Carey handles it all very subtly, weaving privilege, pain and damage together into a beautiful tapestry. Nothing seems stable, and yet there’s something solid growing — that “sharp searing pain that didn’t hurt” — something real, absolutely true, and physical that stays through life’s changes.
There are no fireworks in His Illegal Self. The prose is light and smooth, but looking closely, each sentence is wrought with meaning and intensity. Che is “gooseflesh, head to toes” as he realizes how helpless he is. When Dial hears a girl calling for the lost Che, she recognizes this “dreadful sympathy.” The hippy landscape of Nambour, from the home grown vegetables to the scruffy undergrowth, is lovingly depicted in spite of Dial’s disdain.
Like even the blackest of Carey’s novels (and for me, it’s tempting to almost see this novel as an antidote to The Tax Inspector), there’s a strong undercurrent of humour. Dial is subsumed in the small-mindedness of Australia, and yet she holds on desperately to her status: “Her mother would have died to see her genius in a dump like this.” (36) She was an “SDS goddess”, the Alice May Twitchell Fellow at Vassar College, stuck in the backwoods of Australia where, as with any commune, the pettiness is all pervasive. She puts up shelving for lentils, lines the house with crooked boards, and tries to procure the services of a Zoot-suited lawyer to argue her case back in America so Che can go home, but her ignorance is obvious enough to the hippies whose commune she joins. Right from the start of Dial’s journey, Carey pokes a hole in American myopia as he displays Dial’s lack of knowledge about the world outside of the US:
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? (79)
Trevor tells her at one point “You’re American. You wouldn’t know if you were up yourself” (70). She begins to know whether she’s “up herself” as His Illegal Self progresses, however. Dial’s painful learning curve is part of what makes this novel work. In an act of remarkable self-control, Carey leaves the story open, suggesting a long and complex history which the reader isn’t privy to. This last sentence so changes the story, that this reader at least, went back and re-read it in its entirety, seeing everything in a different light. I enjoyed it the first time, but found much to reflect on the second – the hallmark of a good novel. Che is believable, both as the eight-year old boy struggling to find himself, and as the older, wiser narrator he becomes by the end of the book. One can imagine many other landscapes, or books growing out of this boy. But for now, there’s only the reader’s imagination, which Carey has kickstarted with this poignant novel.
Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.