the_illegal_coverTitle: The Illegal
Author: Lawrence Hill
Publisher: W.W. Norton
Format: Print (hardcover)
Rating: 2 out of 5
How I got it: I was given a copy by the publisher in exchange for a review

Note: In honour of this book, I encourage readers to make a donation to their local refugee support group. If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area, you can donate to Lifeline Syria to help groups across the region sponsor Syrian refugee families.

One of my goals for 2016 was to read more books by authors of colour and at least two books on the Canada Reads shortlist. When the publishers of The Illegal contacted me and offered to send me a free copy of the book, I eagerly accepted the opportunity because it was already on the Canada Reads longlist. It made the shortlist a few weeks ago.

That being said, I need to be honest: even though getting this book for free was a nice perk, I still had a lot of trouble getting through it, and my mind was fighting me the whole way.

Keita Ali is a gifted long-distance runner and a native of the small island of Zantoroland, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. When Zantoroland undergoes a political coup and his journalist father is tortured and killed, Keita goes on the run to the nearby prosperous island of Freedom State. As an undocumented refugee in a country reaching new heights of xenophobia, Keita needs to lay low. But that’s an option he can’t afford to take after his sister gets kidnapped and held for ransom — the only way he can earn enough money to win her freedom is by running, and winning, local long-distance races.

That’s not the only problem in Freedom State. AfricTown, the country’s largest slum, is ruled with an iron fist by Lula DiStefano — in addition to being the slum’s de-facto landlord, she also runs brothels and generally has her fingers in many unsavoury pies. She is desperately trying to get the government to install local infrastructure and she’s not above blackmailing the Prime Minister to get things done. At the same time, two journalists — one a gifted student and the other a marginalized reporter looking to get off the sports pages — start sniffing when word gets around about a young prostitute who got deported to Zantoroland and died under torture.

Okay, so we’ve got military coups in third-world countries, lots of refugees fleeing towards safe harbour, and the residents of those safer countries trying to deport newcomers back to where they came from. Considering that there’s a certain refugee crisis filling the headlines right now, this book is full of Very Topical Geopolitical Issues. This is clearly a book that has Important Things to say.

Alas that it could not say them in a way I found engaging. I had several issues with the book.

Let’s start with the fact that I found it hard to take The Illegal seriously from page one because of two particular words: Freedom State. At the risk of sounding pedantic, that’s a shitty, unimaginative name for a fictional country. It’s a fictional name so politically baldfaced and ostentatious that I can’t take the story seriously as anything more nuanced than a manifesto, or, at best, an extremely clumsy parable. I mean, if I opened a restaurant and called it “The Food Place”, would you consider me a serious restauranteur? Probably not. You’d think, at best, that I was an insufferable hipster aiming for meta humour.

This lack of imagination extends to describing exactly what it is that makes Freedom State so special. Throughout the book, both the characters and the omniscient narration say repeatedly that Freedom State “is one of the best countries in the world”, has a “strong economy”, and so forth. But what exactly makes Freedom State such an attractive place to live? What are its chief industries? Does it have a thriving technology sector, like in the US? Is it, like Canada, built primarily on the extraction of natural resources? The book doesn’t say.

It’s fair to assume that like many English-speaking first-world economies (e.g., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.), Freedom State is a former colonial state. However, unlike other former colonial states, there’s very little evidence of any culture outside of the Western/European norm bubbling up from the bottom to give the country its own stamp — no non-Eurocentric place names, no unusual slang, no sense of uniquely “Freedom-Statonian” cuisine.

Thus, like its economy, Freedom State’s cultural identifiers are cobbled together from a mishmash of elements from other developed countries. Everyone seems to listen to country music and get coffee from Tim Hortons. There’s a restaurant at a major intersection in the capital city called The Lox and Bagel. When Keita attempts to open a bank account, he briefly considers going to a Bank of Montreal branch. Freedom State’s main newspaper, The Clarkson Evening Telegram, is constantly stated to be one of the best in the world and is frequently mentioned in the same breath as such luminaries as The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and… uh… The Toronto Star. (Hill is Canadian. I happen to think he lays on the CanCon love a  little thick here.)

Speaking of which, this book takes place in 2018, yet there’s little to no mention at all of the pressures that the newspaper is industry is facing over the Death of Print. When you consider that one of the main characters is a newspaper journalist who files her stories via email, the vaunting of print seems a little out of place. If you’re writing a story that takes place in the near future where one of the main character is a journalist, and yet refuse to engage with the way the internet is radically shaking up the industry, that seems both lazy and highly implausible.

So, the worldbuilding is cardboard thin. What about the people inhabiting that world? What are they like?

With a few exceptions, they’re also pretty thin. Perhaps the most vibrant character is Viola Hill, a journalist struggling to be taken seriously at the Telegram. Black, gay, and using a wheelchair, Viola’s under no illusions about how she has to work harder than anyone else around her to get a shred of respect:

To be given a crack at serious news stories, Viola Hill had to be perfect on the  job. Always on time. Always ready. Invincible. Got the flu? Don’t tell anybody. Having a day when all she could think about was that she wished her mom were still alive? Swallow that emotion. Having a rare burst of phantom pain, like a knife ripping through her thighs? How bloody fair was that, to feel ten-out-of-ten agony in a part of her body that she no longer even owned? Even phantom pains she had to mask. She had learned not to scream when they came out of nowhere. She could not have people thinking she’d keel over and die. They would never promote her. Viola was sick and tired of having to be unassailable. But she answered the phone whenever it rang, because that’s what professionals did.

But few of the others fare so well. John Falconer, a high school student trying to make a documentary about AfricTown for a school project, is basically an annoying boy genius. Rocco Calder, Freedom State’s new and beleaguered Minister of Immigration, develops little more depth beyond the idea that he’s in over his head. Ivernia Beech, a spunky senior citizen, pretty much exists to solve people’s problems and act as living proof that Not All White People In This Story Are Awful.

And Keita? Aside from the rash decision he makes to abandon his sports agent and go underground in Freedom State, he’s seen as a golden boy. People constantly remark on how handsome he is, how well-trained he is, how polite he is. Nearly everyone who meets him treats him kindly and shields him from the true harshness of being an undocumented refugee. Ivernia offers to have him stay at her house. Lula DiStefano gives him a big meal and even some impromptu medical treatment. The director of a local race repeatedly offers to train him so that he can join Freedom State’s Olympic marathon team. Hell, a local cop falls for him and has a one-night stand with him; in the epilogue, they become a couple and both try out for the Olympic marathon team. How convenient is that?

I sense an uncomfortable subtext to the way that Keita is treated: in essence, he’s a Model Minority. Be talented and polite like Keita, the story seems to say, and the ugly realities of life as a refugee will cease to apply. If you’re living a substandard life as a refugee, well, it’s just because you don’t have enough innate dignity to make the right kind of people want to help you.

Hill is a biracial author whose past works have dealt intimately with the topic of racial discrimination. Isn’t it kind of disingenuous for him to create a character who survives because of such preferential treatment?

The Illegal fails on several levels of craft, as well: it’s dialogue is belaboured, its ending wraps up too neatly, and it features some truly clunky (and unnecessary) info dumps. All of the political allegory in the world can’t make me overlook such narrative flaws.

Here’s the bottom line: if you want to really do something to address the current refugee crisis, don’t read this book. You’re not going to learn anything substantive while doing so. Instead, donate some money to a worthy charity. Lifeline Syria is still taking donations, and has plenty of information about how you can help if you’re not based in the GTA — your time and money could go a lot farther there.