This is a fast paced story about a fast runner and I read it quickly. Lots of stuff happening, lots of colourful characters and talk about relevant! With the refugee crisis exploding The Illegal by Lawrence Hill couldn’t have come out at a more opportune time. The characters are pretty stock- your good cops, your bad cops, your kind aging mother with an evil abusive son, your bad politicians and your not so bad politicians, and a reporter named Viola who covers several stock character options- she is black, disabled and gay. And then there is Keita, the main character… yet another orphan. There isn’t a book nominated for the Canada Reads contest that doesn’t feature an orphan or two. My favorite character in The Illegal was John a intellectual whiz kid with everything going against him yet he is beating the odds. For someone whose worked with children her whole life his character was very hope inspiring for me.This novel covers the Canada Reads theme of ‘starting over’ in spades. Many of the characters are trying to do just that but none more than the refugee Keita who is determined to use his powress as a marathon runner to make a new life for himself and his sister.
Someone told me that the fictional countries in the book just didn’t work for them and I agree. With all the places in the world where the influx of refugees is creating a moral and economic crisis the author would have done well to research one of them to make his story more ‘real.’ The strength of Hill’s previous best seller The Book of Negroes was the historical insight we received based on Hill’s research about a group of African Americans who immigrated to Canada.
Of all the books nominated for Canada Reads this year The Illegal probably has the least direct connection to Canada. There is one reference to Tim Hortons and another to a magazine article about a Canadian runner but that’s about it. The other novels all are primarily set in Canada or in the case of The Hero’s Walk has main characters who are Canadian.
The writing in The Illegal wasn’t nearly as nuanced and beautiful as in Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawaz and in hindsight maybe I should have made that my second place choice. But I was reading The Illegal while we were traveling in a crowded, stuffy van for a whole day along the coast of Costa Rica. The Illegal was an easy read, engaged me, made the time pass very quickly and I’m a sucker for a little romance and a happy ending.