“The lives of undocumented refugees have haunted me for years. Will they be welcomed or deported? Persecuted in countries new or old? The countless question marks in their lives inspired me to write The Illegal.”–Lawrence Hill
This is a timely novel, appearing when the news is full of the migrant crisis. Boatloads of hopefuls arriving on distant shores, refugees fleeing certain death in their home country, economic migrants hoping for a better life, questions of ethnicity and identity, oppressive regimes, corrupt government officials, genocide….this novel has it all. The setting of the story is imaginary. Freedom State is the third richest nation in the world and just across the Ortiz Sea is Zantoroland, a poor country ravaged by colonization and populated by a desperately poor and persecuted people. Hill has produced a novel that is all about complex social commentary, but reads like a thriller. He did the same thing in his epic novel The Book of Negroes/Someone Knows My Name, one of the most successful Canadian novels of all time. The Illegal will no doubt meet with similar success.
There are so many interesting characters in this novel, including a disabled/black/gay journalist, a philanthropic brothel madam, and a very feisty grandmother! But running like a thread right through the book is the main character, an “illegal” marathoner named Keita Ali who just wants to escape the horrors of genocide and loss, trying to find a way to save his life and that of his sister. The only resources he has are his legs and his ability to run. And he uses these gifts not to promote his own career, but in a selfless desire to help others. Through Keita Ali, we get a first hand look at what it would be like to be stateless and paperless.