In Peter Carey's new novel His Illegal Self, the child, a seven year old called Che (named for revolutionary Che Guevara) is not only a willing party to the abduction, he's actually been waiting for it.
They will come for you, man. they'll break you out of herehis neighbour predicts, referring to the boy's parents, famous student radicals on the run from the FBI.
When Dial arrives one day at the apartment Che shares with his WASP grandmother in New Yorks Upper East Side, he recognises her immediately, and soon the pair are on the run from the law and with financial and, with tactical help from the activists, eventually skip the country and find themselves on the run in Australia. Is the young woman with honey-colored skin, tangled hair in 15 shades, hindu necklaces and little silver bells around her ankles his real mother though?
Now I must confess that I found myself frequently scratching my head in the first part of this book, struggling to find out exactly what was happening. I felt as if I were watching a film through frosted class - I couldn't quite get the picture into focus and I felt distanced. Most of the pieces do fall into place later in the novel, but still there is still a need to suspend a fair old bit of disbelief, and I am still not convinced about Dial's motives for taking Che in the first place.
For me the book really began to pull together once the pair move into a hut in the inhospitable Queensland wilds, and find themselves part of an equally inhospitable hippy community (based on a commune Carey had once been part of) guaranteed to knock any residual nostalgia for the good old '60's and 70's firmly on the head.
(I must add a note here while I remember that I am thinking of founding a society for the prevention of cruelty to fictional animals, because the incident with the cat was totally uncalled for, I thought.)
The great strength of the book is in Carey's ability to create characters we can fully believe in and want to root for. His portrait of the watchful, needy Che is pitch perfect. We sympathise deeply with Dial, torn between regret for opportunities lost (she was due to start a new career as a college when she found herself drawn into her friend's mess) and her fierce love for Che whom she took care of for a time when he was a baby. The narrative is told at times from her perspective, at times from his, and I very much like the way that sometimes the same event (most notably the actual abduction) is viewed through both sets of eyes to show the differences in the child's and the adult's perception.
There's also Trevor, their neighbour in the commune is just the kind of wily rascal that Carey excels at creating, who gradually assumes the role of a father figure to Che and lover to Dial.
It's a sort of modern adage that there are two kinds of families, those we are born into, and those we struggle to create. In his novels, Carey frequently draws characters who are in some sense orphaned as these three are. The love that grows gradually between them is earthy and real. So real in fact that I wanted to spin the last few chapters of the book out for as long as possible, though when I got there, the life-affirming ending had me cheering.
So in the end, yes, I was a satisfied reader, although I didn't feel as strongly for the book as I have done for most of Carey's other novels, notably True History of the Kelly Gang and Theft.
Will the novel get Bookered? I bet.
If you want to know more about the book, here are some leads you might follow :
You can read the first chapter of the novel on the New York Times website and there's a very interesting review of the book by Liesl Schilinger which concentrates on its political context.
Ruth Scurr also reviews the book in the Times, describing Carey (very aptly, I think) as :
... a feral writer.You can also read Carey's Q and A about the book on the Random House website.
Here's an interview from ABC :