“Keita wondered whether a person could be punished for having thoughts, or only for committing those thoughts to paper.”
Note: This title was published in Canada on August 12, 2015, and will be released in the United States on January 25, 2016.
Keita Ali is a runner from the tiny island nation of Zantoroland, located in the Indian Ocean. To the north of Zantoroland is Freedom State, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Many of the residents of Zantoroland are the descendants of slaves who were expelled from Freedom State when slavery was abolished in 1834. Every year, thousands of Zantorolanders try to escape to Freedom State, fleeing poverty, ethnic violence, and anti-LGBT sentiment. When the regime murders Keita’s father for reporting on events in Zantoroland for international newspapers, Keita knows it is only a matter of time before they come for him as well, so he signs a contract with Anton Hamm, a marathon agent and former Olympian with a reputation for violence. After running a race in Freedom State, Keita disappears into the underground world of “Illegals,” undocumented immigrants living below the radar in Freedom State. Facing blackmail and medical expenses, Keita continues to surface from time to time run races with significant cash prizes, but his alias—Roger Bannister—begins to attract unwanted attention. Everyone from Immigration Minister and fellow marathoner Rocco Calder, to Lula DiStefano, Queen of the AfricTown slum, to Viola Hill, gay, black, disabled reporter for the Clarkson Evening Telegram, wants to know who Roger Bannister is, and where he came from. Keita must run to win, but winning may garner unwanted attention from the authorities he so desperately needs to avoid.
In setting his story on the fictional island nations of Zantoroland and Freedom State, Lawrence Hill is free to borrow elements of immigration stories and policies from countries around the world, exploring the problems that refugees flee, and the tensions within the countries where they seek refuge. The Illegal explores timely issues in a fictional context, and cannot be dismissed as being about one country’s particular problems with immigration, or the fall-out of slavery. Keita is literally and figuratively running to survive in an all-too-believable dystopia set in the very near future, in an industrialized country that can easily represent Canada, the United States, or any Western European nation, as well as definite shades of South Africa. Within Zantorland, we see ethnic tensions between the wealthy, minority Faloo, and the majority Kano, reminiscent of conflicts in many African nations.
Although Keita is at the centre of the story, many viewpoints swirl around him. Rocco Calder is nominally the Minister of Immigration for the ruling Family Party in Freedom State, but in fact he is a mere figurehead, as almost all power resides with the Prime Minister’s Office. While Calder shares his government’s anti-immigration stance, he is troubled when he begins to uncover evidence of the extent to which Prime Minister Graeme Wellington may have gone in pursuit of this goal. Viola Hill is a gay, black reporter in a wheel chair who has been relegated to the sports page when she longs to report on real news. In covering an education event for a colleague who is out sick, she gets an unexpected opportunity to report on immigration issues when the winning essayist—ninth grader John Falconer—has written about the historical connections between Zantoroland and Freedom State. Not only that, John is also hard at work on a documentary about life in AfricTown, the slum where many of the country’s poor and undocumented residents live, and where Viola grew up. John has deep connections in AfricTown, including to Lula DiStefano, the owner of a high-end brothel, and landlord to more than 80% of AfricTown’s residents, who rent converted shipping containers from her. We also meet Candace Freixa, and ambitious black police officer in Freedom State, and Ivernia Beech, a wealthy white philanthropist whose son is trying to have her committed in order to gain access to her fortune. Lawrence Hill slowly makes connections between many of the characters, and links them back to Keita, but this is definitely not a story recommended for those who dislike following multiple points of view.
For many readers, another drawback of The Illegal will be the neat-and-tidy ending. While the fact that it has a happy ending is actually rather refreshing, the final chapters are stylistically awkward and list-like, telling us what happened to each person…and then…and then…and then. This feels very contrived in contrast to Hill’s stylistic fluidity and ease through the rest of the story. However, the timeliness of the story, and the strong cast of diverse characters make for an engaging read.
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