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His Illegal Self Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 5, 2008
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When the boy was almost eight, a woman stepped out of the elevator into the apartment on East Sixty-second Street and he recognized her straightaway. No one had told him to expect it. That was pretty typical of growing up with Grandma Selkirk . . . No one would dream of saying, Here is your mother returned to you.
His Illegal Self is the story of Cheâraised in isolated privilege by his New York grandmother, he is the precocious son of radical student activists at Harvard in the late sixties. Yearning for his famous outlaw parents, denied all access to television and the news, he takes hope from his long-haired teenage neighbor, who predicts, They will come for you, man. Theyâll break you out of here.
Soon Che too is an outlaw: fleeing down subways, abandoning seedy motels at night, he is pitched into a journey that leads him to a hippie commune in the jungle of tropical Queensland. Here he slowly, bravely confronts his life, learning that nothing is what it seems. Who is his real mother? Was that his real father? If all he suspects is true, what should he do?
Never sentimental, His Illegal Self is an achingly beautiful story of the love between a young woman and a little boy. It may make you cry more than once before it lifts your spirit in the most lovely, artful, unexpected way.
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Another element in some of Carey's books is the offbeat, somewhat quirky, dynamic of his narratives. To make my point, think of Philip Roth, sort of Carey's narrative opposite, who brings the awesome power of his analysis to the subjects of aging in Everyman or the relation of the ill and elderly to youth in Exit Ghost. In those books, Roth takes common experiences head on. But Carey? Well, he finds a twist so that the situation he explores does not require power so much as narrative talent. Carey's approach to the familiar is subtle.
In HIS, Carey's starting point is SDS in New York in the early 1970s. Basically, a young woman and associate professor, Dial, without any malice aforethought, goes underground with a boy, Che, whose mother is SDS and whose grandmother lives on Park Avenue. Gradually, Carey unfolds this story so that what appears like a capricious disaster--the abduction of the boy--makes perfect sense. Then, the climax of the novel turns on an element in Dial's character, which emerges with angry clarity in a final conversation with Che's grandmother. It's a fascinating story, told like a mystery, that comes together with logic and power in the final few pages. Bravo Peter!
Of course, the dynamic driving some of Peter Carey's novels is not quirky at all. For example, it's easy to get the story of Ned Kelly, growing up poor and despised Irish in Australia. It's easy to get the story of the Boone brothers in Theft, since the action is driven by love and ambition. But HIS is one of Carey's subtler books and this reader had to mull its issues when finished. Then, I got it. HIS is Carey's take on something we all understand: Fool for Love.
HIS ILLEGAL SELF is first and foremost an extraordinary story that takes on a life of its own and will hold you in its grip. Your only task is to keep turning the pages of this 272 page novel although it seems much shorter. It left me wanting more. Although you will be hard put to find a stranger love story, Dial and Trevor's affection for this sometimes lonely lad-- he loves his cat Buck-- eager to know his parents, radical student activists of the 1960's, seep through on practically every page of this all too short story. Mr. Carey's love for his homeland comes through as well.
Mr. Carey is a magician when it comes to language and reminds us over and over that he is a master of the Queen's English. Che's warm Hershey bar is "soft and bendy." After having been given a full-page photograph of his outlaw father from LIFE magazine, he looked at it, then "folded up his father very carefully and kept him in his pocket." He cannot understand why Australians speak, "words like ground beef in their mouths." Che on Dial: "She was nice to him, but careful now, and sometimes playing cards he felt a cloud of sadness settle on them both, like bugs around a lamp." Finally "the boy saw how the moonlight was caught in the gauze of many little wings, white ants, mosquitoes, moths with black jeweled bodies.
Peter Carey has the ability-- not often found in writers-- to create one novel after another without repeating himself. Certainly one of the finest living novelists, he is a joy to read.
Author is talented writer with crisp, visual and powerful passages especially depicting the landscape and conditions in the outback. Problem I had was that I couldn't make any sense of why Anna Xenos would walk away from a bright future at Vassar to kidnap a boy and smuggle him all the way to Australia when she was never all that close to the boy or the Mother or the revolutionary movement? Is this truly plausible? Was Dial that naive or gullible or is there more to the story? I couldn't get the talented writing to hang on the reasons why Dial and the boy ended up in Australia. Sorry, this book wasn't for me.
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Che is a seven year old boy, living with his rich grandmother in New York.Read more