Sunday, December 31, 2017

Lawrence Hill's The Illegal is a fictional challenge to our preconceptions

Recently, I have been particularly enjoying Lawrence Hill's 2015 book, The Illegal.
It is set in a mythical pair of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean: the large, mineral-rich, wealthy and developed Freedom State; and the much smaller, much poorer banana republic of Zantoroland. Zantoroland is populated exclusively by various shades of black people, and is, despite its lack of facilities and funding, the natural source of a never-ending supply of elite long-distance runners. The country exhibits a sad juxtaposition between the poor but (in some ways) idyllic and bucolic lifestyle of its populace, and the violence and corruption of its authorities, a juxtaposition that is familiar from any number of smaller African states. Freedom State, on the other hand, is predominantly white, apart from a poor and lawless suburb of the capital city known as AfricTown, an area of converted shipping containers largely occupied by emigrĂ©s and refugees from Zantoroland. Freedom State has elements of South Africa, Australia, America and several other developed countries, without being obviously and definitively any of them, and has an aggressively conservative government with a sworn policy of hounding out the illegal immigrants within its borders, and halting the influx of future black refugees.
By means of this conceit, Mr. Hill sets up a set piece situation for a fascinating mixed cast of characters, which he uses to explore the dynamics of international relations, institutionalized racism, and the ambitions and motivations of a whole host of different types and individuals. Among others, we meet:
  • Keita Ali (a young,ambitious, naturally-gifted runner from Zantoroland, who leaves Freedom State in order to avoid the government-sponsored assassination that took his father from him);
  • Charity Ali (Keita's fiercely intelligent and strong-minded sister, who ends up being plucked from her Havard education and used a political pawn in Zantoroland);
  • Rocco Calder (an ex-athlete and car salesman, now working, rather half-heartedly, as the Freedom State Family Party's immigration minister);
  • Viola Hill (a feisty, shaven-headed, black, disabled lesbian, desperately trying to make her mark as an investigative journalist in Freedom State);
  • Lula DiStefano (self-appointed "Queen of AfricTown", ostensibly a brash, rapacious and hard-hearted businesswoman, but also an inscrutable supporter and benefactor of the down-trodden blacks of Freedom State);
  • Anton Hamm (the avaricious, single-minded and slightly scary track-and-field agent with anger management issues, who sees Keita as essentially a cash cow);
  • John Falconer (scrappy and gutsy, pushy and overachieving, John is a 15-year old AfricTown resident and student at a school for the gifted, who is making a video documentary on the racial divides of Freedom State);
  • Ivernia Beech (the ageing sponsor of a major Freedom State literary prize, with a progressive sense of social justice); etc, etc.
I won't elucidate on his how all these characters interact, or just how the story develops. But rest assured that, in simple and undemanding language, Mr. Hill weaves a tangled, yet ultimately edifying, labyrinth of a plot, one that makes you think about your beliefs and values without being prescriptive or doctrinaire. It is an unputdownable page-turner of a political critique. And it even manages to work in a plug for Tim Hortons - what's not to like?

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