Here’s another “adult forms meaningful relationship with kid not his/her own” story, but one vastly different from “About a Boy” in focus and intent. I didn’t read this book as “research” but rather found it on the library’s scant audiobooks shelf and thought it sounded interesting. Little did I know, I was wading back into Zorro territory, if only slightly.
“His Illegal Self” is the story of 7 year old “Che”, the child of 70’s underground radicals, raised by his WASPy grandmother on a ritzy upstate New York estate. One day, a woman who Che takes to be his infamous and long absent mother shows up and absconds with him. At first Che is eager to join his notorious parents on the run, but the woman is not who he thinks she is, and the two end up in the Australian rain forest in a sort of subsistence level hippy commune.
This is the first of Peter Carey’s books I’ve read and I found the writing stunning. Descriptions of the Australian jungles and beaches are achingly beautiful, so lush and tactile I felt as if I knew these place down to the bones. The characters are interesting—though they take some time to know and understand. Perhaps this is intentional on Carey's part-- our initial impressions as confused as Che's as he sorts out the truth of his situation. It's a complex sort of truth, the characters are, in a way, as densely mysterious as the bush.
In fact, the whole book is structured so that the readers’ emotions mirror those of the boy as he sets off hopefully, becomes increasingly confused and frightened, before finally coming into his own sort of understanding.
From a writer’s point of view, I found the meandering plot really interesting. It had a deus ex machina feel to it in places, and was wide ranging and loose ended, but totally engrossing just the same. Some of the subplots seem to lead off into the dense brush and disappear, others are left shadowy, never quite resolve themselves. But the boy’s developing relationship with his unwitting “kidnapper” – and with a feral, paranoid hippie they encounter (Of course, this character sort of stole the show for me)—is complex and so well-depicted, the loose ends hardly mattered.
Carey is an established and well-respected writer. I wonder if a debut author would have been granted the space to be this sort of sloppy with the plot. Probably not. But I'm glad he was able to; "His Illegal Self" would have been a different book if he'd been forced to hack this wild and fertile jungle into neat little garden row plot strands.
Has anyone else read this one? Comments?