A&E » Book Reviews

The run of his life

Book review: The Illegal by Lawrence Hill



Whistler hosts the 2015 Writers Festival from Oct. 15 to 18. Pique is running reviews of books by attending authors to celebrate. For information and tickets: www.whistlerwritersfest.com.

Not one to shy away from impactful and thought provoking stories, Lawrence Hill's third novel, The Illegal, arrives at bookstores at the same time as the news channels covered the flow of refugee from the Middle East and Africa into Europe.

Hill has been working on the follow up to his international bestseller, The Book of Negroes, for five years and it doesn't disappoint.

It is a page turner, as the following paragraph suggests: "The runner on his shoulder said it again. 'Go. Fucking. Home.' A rude man. He deserved to suffer. Keita bumped up the pace. Sooner or later, the obnoxious fellow would start to hurt. The name of the game was to inflict more pain than he felt. So Keita — a stranger in a strange land whose only transgression was to exist in a place where his presence was illegal — would use speed to break him."

The tone lasts throughout, as Hill begins to reveal a complex web of well-defined and interesting characters grappling with politics, national identity and discrimination.

The story is set in 2018 and follows young marathon runner Keita Ali as he trains in the fictional country Zantoroland, a mountainous island that Hill places just off the African coast. He looks up to his father, Yoyo, a writer who aims to tell the truth in a corrupt land that's renowned for silencing those who do.

Along with his Harvard-bound sister, Keita realizes he must leave his homeland if he wants to fulfill his running dream and survive. After impressing a local talent scout he finds himself on a plane to the ironically named "Freedom State," where, as an "illegal," he has to run under an alias. The stakes become higher and higher with each race, as those he loves get caught in the snares of political corruption.

You can't help but feel empathy for those from Zantoroland who are attempting to flee the poverty and unrest, and feel disgust for the Freedom State citizens who wield placards reading "Who Invited Them?"

Hill has created a fictional world that mimics our current global state. He tells the story of one family — something we don't often get to hear about when faced with staggering statistics that round humans up into numbers.

As of Sept. 22, Associated Press reported that 500,000 people have fled to Europe from the Middle East and Africa so far this year.

In a recent interview with CBC News, Hill explains that each of these people has a story, and it's important not to forget that.

As Hill told CBC: "Keita Ali was anonymous, alone and about to go underground in Clarkson, population 4.5 million — the capital and biggest city of Freedom State. Nobody knew him here. If something happened to him, nobody would think to notify his sister. Nobody would know where to find her. Keita Ali could not afford to get caught... Keita would run for his life."

CBC's Grant Lawrence will be in conversation with Lawrence Hill at the Whistler Writers Festival on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. For more details and to purchase tickets visit whistlerwritersfest.com.