Published by Alfred A. Knopf
Review by W. R. Greer
His Illegal Self begins with 7-year-old Che thrilled to be with his mother who has come to claim him from his grandmother. He hasn't seen his mother since he was two and he's never seen his father. It's 1972, and his parents are radicals whose illegal activities have them hiding from federal authorities. Che's grandmother is a highbrow woman moving back and forth between her Park Avenue apartment and an upstate lakeside home. She refuses to let Che watch television, partly so that he never sees his parents on the news or being apprehended by authorities. A teenage babysitter, though, informs Che that his parents are important heroes of the counterculture and that one day they'll come to break him out of his grandmother's coddled existence.
Even though he hasn't seen his mother for years, he immediately recognizes her. Everything about her hits chords of memories he's kept since he was two.
He knew her the way he was used to knowing everything important, from hints and whispers, by hearing someone talking on the phone, although this particular event was so much clearer, had been since the minute she blew into the apartment, the way she held him in her arms and squeezed the air from him and kissed his neck. He had thought of her so many nights and here she was, exactly the same, completely different—honey-colored skin and tangled hair in fifteen shades. She had Hindu necklaces, little silver bells around her ankles, an angel sent by God.She tells him that she has a surprise for him, and Che assumes this means that she's taking him to see his father. It's obvious even to Che, though, that somehow plans have gone very wrong. They end up hopping from city to city across the U.S. and eventually end up in a remote area of Queensland, Australia. Even Che knows they're "on the lamb." Adding to his confusion is that when he tries to call this woman "mom," she tells him to call her Dial instead. Che initially thinks this is because they're hiding, but he becomes suspicious that there are more mysterious reasons involved.
This first part of Peter Carey's novel is at times as confusing for the reader as it is for Che. There are disconnected events in Dial's and Che's journey with seemingly throwaway references to other people and places. As Dial and Che tell their stories, though, future chapters fill in more and more of what has really happened to them and how they came to be in their present predicament. It does make for a jarring and disconnected first third of the novel, though, complicated by a disbelief in the reasons for Dial's actions in getting Che from his grandmother and fleeing with him halfway around the world. As Dial's past unfolds, her motivations and reactions just don't ring completely true, but it's a necessary plot device to propel Dial and Che away from the lives and comforts they've known to a place as foreign and hostile as they can imagine.
One of the things Peter Carey does well in His Illegal Self is his re-creation of the traumatic era that drove families apart. He juxtaposes the arrogance and sense of privilege that Che's grandmother embodies versus the hippies and revolutionaries that despise everything she stands for. Dial and others of her generation were all well aware that their beliefs and behaviors often made them enemies of the establishment and Nixon administration. It's not totally surprising then that Dial felt she had no choice but run as far as she could, especially once she knew Che's grandmother had the federal authorities looking for her.
Dial, with thousands of dollars sewn in the hem of her skirt, arrives with Che deep in the Australian countryside and buys a hovel at the edge of a hippie commune. Things have continued to go wrong and in the process of reaching the commune, Dial is convinced to give up some of her money to one man and is threatened with rape by another, and then realizes they're both members of the commune. The rest of the people in the commune are as hostile as the environment. They dislike her because she's an American, and they also insist that Dial get rid of the stray cat that Che had adopted. They prefer the birds which are being killed by Che's cat (which he named Buck after the dog in Call of the Wild), and hound Dial constantly about the issue. Dial and Che find themselves in an untenable situation. Dial has given up all she's ever wanted to achieve and is devoid of any hope. Che firmly believes that his father will come and save him. He's increasingly upset with Dial and begins to spend more time with Trevor, a man abused as an orphan who is determined to live an independent life on his own terms.
With their dire predicament, hostile neighbors, and no motivation or future to urge Dial and Che onward, Peter Carey has created a dystopia that could rival anything Margaret Atwood might create. The center of the novel drags on with the bleakness of their lives and even the reader is left depressed at the hopelessness of their situation. It's not until they learn to clutch to the love they share, and the glimmer of hope that provides, that they can reach any fragment of acceptance and inner peace.
In a lesser writer's hands, His Illegal Self might have veered too far into either sentimentality or an over-riding sense of pity for Dial and Che. Peter Carey never lets Che become precocious and he is portrayed as any seven-year-old boy might react. If any child's worst fear is the loss of his parents, it's a trauma that Che has suffered more than once, and his defiant stance that his father will come for him is his way of grasping at that last straw before accepting the reality of his situation. Dial must deal with this frustration and Che's refusal to accept the truth about his father as well as her own loss of hope. Her story can be as unsettling and poignant as Che's. It's the compelling story of the relationship that builds between these two that drive His Illegal Self forward.
His Illegal Self is not an easy story to read, and it's tedious at times waiting for any sense of hope to come to its characters' lives. It's the characters that are the highlight of this novel, though, and Peter Carey's expert handling of their relationships and emotions that binds it all together in a flurry of emotions that buffets the reader as well.
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Read our review of My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey.