In the afterword of his new novel, The Illegal, Lawrence Hill says it took him five years to write the book. I read the novel in less than a day. And while a reviewer who yearns for respect should never, ever use the phrase "unputdownable," there we have it. The Illegal is a twisting, intricately woven yarn that spins itself out at an incredible pace. I could not put the book down. Read it, you must.
In The Illegal, Hill takes on the snarled, pressing issues of our moment in time, including race and discrimination, the movement of refugees across borders and the political fight to define who belongs and who is "an illegal."
Keita Ali is a marathoner, an elite runner from the fictional country of Zantoroland, an isolated island in the middle of the fictional Ortiz Sea – Hill positions it smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It's populated by people whose ancestors, a century and a half ago, were the slaves whose labour built the third wealthiest economy on the planet, the also fictional country of Freedom State, also an island, though much larger than Zantoroland. Got that? If not, I take full responsibility. Hill is a storyteller of enormous talent, capable of conveying complex information apparently effortlessly. When the book opens, the year is 2018, and Keita Ali is running a punishing race in Freedom State against a vicious opponent who is tormenting him with racial slurs. A larger story shimmers under the surface: Keita is not just running a race, he's on the run from the police, though the reader doesn't know why, yet. With his tormentor at his heels, the unflappable hero calmly ticks his pace up a notch and begins to sing as he surges up the hill: "Want to shatter your opponent's confidence? Just when he starts to hurt, you sing." The race won't be put into context until midway through the book, when a multitude of characters and narrative threads converge with satisfying resonance.
Because the novel's strength relies on its propulsive plot, and because "spoiler alert" combined with the aforementioned "unputdownable" could end my reviewing career, suffice it to say that Keita was born in Zantoroland, the son of a renowned journalist whose integrity has cost the family a great deal. As a child, Keita loved watching elite marathoners train and dreamed of becoming one. Hill's descriptions of running are richly observed: "The runners spilled along the road like blood out of veins, passing over yet another hill. Brown arms swung in loose unison and legs churned smoothly, feet nearly soundless on the first road, apart from the crunching of pebbles." Zantoroland is a nation of runners. Perhaps this is a metaphor, too.
Boatloads of refugees are attempting the dangerous crossing of the Ortiz Sea between Zantoroland and Freedom State. Their hoped-for destination is the shantytown of AfricTown where both legal and illegal residents live in shipping containers rented to them by Lulu, the de facto ruler of AfricTown. The idea of social and racial mobility is key to the success of the larger project of Freedom State, but in reality only a token few escape AfricTown, where, amidst the squalor, an illegal economy thrives. Lulu is a nebulous moral figure, both benevolent and ruthless: her relationships are transparently transactional. She uses every advantage at her disposal. But who doesn't? What is the difference between a good person and a bad person? Lulu straddles a line in between. There are bad people in this book: parasitic schemers, power-seekers, a dictator, torturers, purveyors of violence and fear. Some of these people are the ones who craft partisan, discriminatory laws. And some who break these laws are good people, journalists who subvert the rules in order to expose the truth, an elderly woman who gives library cards to "illegals," and Keita himself, hiding in a foreign state.
Hill draws important distinctions between Zantoroland and Freedom State. Freedom State, as a nation, is an unsatisfactory and incompletely realized compromise, but there is nevertheless hope in its democratic institutions; Zantoroland, a dictatorship, is a nightmare, where state-sanctioned torture and killings eliminate dissent. Wealth separates these nations, too. Freedom State's thriving economy is interdependent on the freedom of movement, freedom of the press, an independent police force and the rule of law. Yet its rise to prosperity is due to unacknowledged history, its economy built on the enslaved labour of those whose descendants are now excluded or marginalized – and blamed for their own exclusion.
The wealthy believe themselves deserving of their wealth, no matter its origins. They absolve themselves of the wreckage caused by their rise.
In this way, The Illegal reminds me of Hill's previous novel, The Book of Negroes: both use story to give flesh, breath, and blood to cold, calculating political and economic practices. The consequences of entitled self-interest are measured in Hill's novels in human terms, and the loss and pain will make a reader weep.
But while The Book of Negroes was powered by a singular voice and illuminated buried history, The Illegal is a different project altogether. The view is omniscient, the tone is that of a slightly futuristic thriller, and rather than setting straight the record, Hill addresses the here and now. For Keita, running is no metaphor: it is literally his ticket into Freedom State. Does this make him a token, too? Hill writes of exceptional characters, those with talent, intelligence, wit, and luck, but what becomes of everyone who is ordinary – the vast majority of humankind, in other words? Is there room in Freedom State for all who want in?
Freedom State may be fictional, but it stands in for wealthy, democratic nations, which benefit economically from global inequity and whose citizens fear inundation at the borders, or from within. Yes, Canada, too. The question is, what is more disruptive to a country's prosperity: the participation of the marginalized or "illegal," or the sacrifice of rights to security?
In the end, Hill ties up his plot neatly; but his larger moral questions linger, provocatively.
Carrie Snyder's novel Girl Runner was a finalist for the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.