So, you may or may not remember that I was in the process of reading, a bit belatedly, all the book selections for this year’s Canada Reads competition. I didn’t plan to leave the winner for last; it just worked out that way because of my library hold requests, but it was kind of nice to build up to the book that won.
The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s exploration of racism, immigration, and our attitudes towards the Other, examined through the lens of two imaginary countries, Zantoroland and Freedom State. The main character, Keita Ali, is a runner from Zantoroland, an impoverished country whose unstable political system is a little remenescient of Rwanda right before the genocide. Life is hard and unsafe in Zantoroland. Education offers Keita’s sister an escape, as running does for Keita, but for both of them getting away is not as easy, or as permanent, as it seems.
Keita becomes an illegal immigrant in the wealthy, white-ruled Freedom State, where his running continues to earn him prizes but he is in constant danger. Here, his life intersects with the lives of several other characters, black and white, who show us different faces of the racial divide in Freedom State.
Hill’s decision to create two fictional countries as the backdrop for his story, instead of using a real-world setting, is risky, and has its advantages and disadvantages. It allows him to set up conflicts with more freedom than he could do within the restrictions of real countries, but might also allow some readers to feel detached from the story, although it’s clear that Zantoroland is every impoverished, volatile country people want to escape, and Freedom State is every wealthy country that wants to control the flood of asylum-seekers.
This is a timely story for 2016, and I found it interesting and read quickly. I did find, though, that it lacked the haunting power of Hill’s best-known book, The Book of Negroes, in which a single narrator emerges as an unforgettable character. The multitude of characters and voices in The Illegal may dilute the power of the narrative a little, but it does give the author many paths into exploring a complex issue.