I ordered The Illegal by Lawrence Hill at a library patron’s request a few months ago even though it doesn’t come out until Jan. 25. So when the book’s publicist got in touch and asked if I’d like to review it, I decided to give it a read. It’s a good time of year for a fast-paced novel, and I finished it in a couple of nights.
Hill’s story centers on Keita Ali, a boy from Zantoroland, a tiny island nation separated by the South Ortiz Sea from Freedom State, a larger, richer, whiter island nation. Zantoroland consistently produces excellent marathoners, and Keita aspires to be one. In the early chapters of the book we hear about his childhood, a coup in Zantoroland, and his journalist father whose stories appear around the world. In the latter part of the novel, Keita escapes to Freedom State, fearing for his life and his family. In Freedom State we meet both the rich and powerful and the residents of Africtown, a slum ruled unofficially by larger than life Lula DiStefano. And we learn that Keita has a very limited time to win enough races to ransom a member of his family held by the government of Zantoroland.
The book certainly addresses timely topics — racism, cultural misunderstanding, fear of refugees, illegal immigration, economic and opportunity inequality, exploitation of women and the poor, sex trafficking, organized crime, corruption and graft, gender discrimination, and mistreatment of the elderly. But that’s an awful lot to stuff into one novel. Some of the characters are interesting, like John, a mixed race teen making a documentary; Viola Hill, a wheelchair bound lesbian reporter with far more ability than her editor sees; and Ivernia Beech, a white woman in her eighties who funds the prize John wins, and whose son wants her ruled incapable of living independently. Even Lula, the “queen of Africtown” who runs a brothel and nightclub but also organizes protests and presses the government for electricity and plumbing for the district, is villainous but potentially intriguing.
But these and other characters, including Keita, face so many obstacles — illnesses, crimes, and the aforementioned laundry list of social ills — that it’s hard to get to know any of them as the story rushes to its dramatic, action-packed conclusion. Some of the subplots didn’t enhance the story so much as further complicate it.
I don’t want to be a total humbug this Christmas Eve. The issues the novel raises make it a potential book club pick for groups who like wrestling with ideas, especially in light of the crazy remarks some of our politicians have made about refugees and immigration lately. Hill’s writing and eye for detail are both fine. I absolutely loved the way Ivernia quietly subverts the official stance on illegals by issuing library cards. I just couldn’t stop seeing the writer as a puppet master pulling the strings, and to me, a good book doesn’t show the author’s machinations.
The Illegal isn’t bad, it just has flaws it doesn’t need to have, given Hill’s skill and talent. I think his ambitions for this novel simply outstripped the structure he had to work with.