Book Review: THE ILLEGAL

By Lindsay Hutton

The Illegal (HarperCollins) is the latest novel from Hamilton-based author, Lawrence Hill. Released this past September, the timing of book seemed perfect, if for an unfortunate reason. Its release ran alongside the world’s attention forced toward the thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas, and the sometimes-deadly voyages they faced in hopes of to finding homes elsewhere.

Hill’s widely acclaimed previous novel, The Book of Negroes, was released in 2007, and was developed into a miniseries airing earlier this year on the CBC and BET. Hill has also served as a writer-in-residence at McMaster University, a reporter, a teacher, and has published other titles as an essayist and memoirist.

The Illegal is the story of Keita Ali, a young marathoner who becomes stateless due to the political repression and violence in his native Zantoroland, a fictional country Hill sets in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Keita flees to the neighbouring country of Freedom State, and earns money winning local foot races, all the while living in constant fear of being discovered. The book captures an imagining of the perilous life of an “illegal” refugee, complete with a series almost-captures and near-escapes.

The use of running as a metaphor for the lives of refugees isn’t accidental. “It seemed perfect for this character and the story I wanted to tell,” says Hill. “Keita has to use his body¬¬¬—not for Olympic glory—but to stay alive. For food money, for shelter money, and to help his sister. [Long-distance running] seemed perfect as a symbol of a flight.”

Not unlike the book’s protagonist, The Illegal moves fast. Any reader would note its near camera-ready polish. It’s little wonder the book’s film rights were picked up even before its publication. The book is not only a profound masterwork of storytelling, but a storied fight song for those on the run.

This book represents years of interest of the lives of refugees for Hill, both formal and informal. Hill notes inspiration found in the life of a refugee who was the partner of his late sister, Karen Hill. Living in Berlin in the 1980s, the
Sudanese “illegal” was a political cartoonist who fled the political turmoil of his homeland, and later made ends meet drawing caricatures for tourists on the street.

“There’s often a hustle among the undocumented refugees,” laments Hill, explaining that an “illegal” status forces people under the radar as a means of survival. “I didn’t base the main character [of The Illegal] solely on my sister’s lover. But watching how hard he had to work to survive became a point of fascination for me.”

“We all know how hard it is to get your life going when you’re a registered, landed immigrant. But when you have no state, and are living in a country ‘illegally’ (which is an offensive idea, but one that is perpetrated by governments around the world), then just living is a challenging matter.”

Hill’s illumination of the lives of refugees is not only saved for words set to print. In 2008, while working as the writer-in-residence at McMaster University, Hill volunteered with the IWC, mentoring many service users in writing about their experiences as immigrants and refugees. “I enjoyed it completely,” says Hill.

Be it on the bus, a beach, or a few pages snatched here and there while your boss isn’t looking, The Illegal delivers a gratifying read. Not only does Hill illustrate a sort of life invisible to many Canadians, but offers a modern classic we can be proud to have emerged from our very own community.

Lindsay Hutton is a freelance writer and activist in Hamilton, Ontario.