Tag Archives: Lawrence Hill

The Illegal: Too Bad Lawrence Hill Likes His Protagonist Too Much

Marathon runners

*gentle spoilers* Lawrence Hill probably wants to write a novel with an unhappy ending. He takes his characters through all kinds of challenging and traumatic situations, he sets up plots that beg for dramatic and painful endings, he foreshadows the loss to come. And then… doesn’t deliver. Like The Book of Negroes, Hill’s new novel, The Illegal ends with the triumph of the virtuous over the corrupt, the community over the selfish individual and (you can probably hear it begin swelling around the same time as the last race sequence opens) swelling music as you know the hero is going to save and be saved. It’s a complaint I’d rather not make. I mean who wants to be the reader who asks for more pain for the well-crafted and sympathetic protagonist? It’s just that after experiencing a novel that sets itself up as realistic through the use of careful plot detail and complex character, it feels like an utter novelistic imposition to have such an – unbelievable – resolution. No character, no community – however deserving – achieves such universal satisfaction. [And I’m not a cynic! I’ve been accused of many things in my life, but pessimism isn’t one of them. On the contrary, my optimism is the source of much contention as it’s thought to be unrealistic – and to be fair D. Trump did just win a primary, so maybe it’s time for me to reconsider my position on the relentless upswing of the universe).]

That complaint soundly registered, I’d still recommend the book. With a well-paced and compelling plot, the novel follows runner Keita Ali as he struggles to run – and win – marathons while living as undocumented and ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the (fictional) Freedom State. His needs for winning are as high stakes as they are plentiful: he needs money to save his sister, to pay off his handler, to pay for surgery, to pay to make himself ‘legal’ in the eyes of the state. If these manifold reasons achieve anything (beyond instilling a sort of overwhelmed feeling that Keita will never survive – only to know in the back of your mind that of course he will because Hill can’t let him die [see complaint #1]), it’s the awareness that the insurmountable obstacles facing people in impossible situations are not obstacles of choice. What allows Keita to survive is, in the end, not his exceptional skill (though it helps), but rather the joint efforts of a community. This shift from individual responsibility for circumstance pushes readers to consider a similar shift in assignations of blame when considering those in similarly impossible situations (the timing of the book alongside the global interest in Syrian refugees certainly invites these kinds of parallel questions). Rather than expecting people to fix for themselves through hard work, grit (or incredible skill), we ought to recognize the ways we all need and benefit from shared effort and energy.

Plus the book has some incredible scenes of running that this [super slow] marathon runner enjoyed quite a bit.


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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction

The Book of Negroes: Second time, Still terrific


When my supervisor suggested I read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes I was delighted. Delighted because I had already read the book in 2007, and enjoyed it a great deal; and delighted because the narrative aligns nicely with ideas about historical fiction I am working on. So this post begins with the caveat that I already liked the book when I read it, and that I wanted to like it again while I was re-reading it. No surprise: I liked it.

The novel has won spades of awards and garnered Lawrence Hill the kind of critical attention he has deserved for years (his novel Any Known Blood is also terrific and well worth the read). The protagonist, Aminata Diallo, speaks with a captivating voice as she recounts her experiences being captured and kidnapped in Africa, transported to America, enslaved in the indigo fields and later in a domestic setting, escape to New York and then Nova Scotia, a return to Africa (Sierre Leone) and finally a journey to England to work with abolitionists. The epic journey is signaled from the first few pages, so it is not necessarily the particular destinations that strike the reader as remarkable, but rather the tenacity and grace of the speaker.

I did find the first time that the section on Aminata’s return to Africa dragged because there was no close relationship between Aminata and anyone else to follow; and perhaps because unlike the other sequences, time passes very quickly, whole years disappear in pages. In the earlier sections a year or two is given a fairly large chunk of text, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the setting and relationships. This second time through I did not find the section dragged as much, but it still stood out because of its different narrative scope.

The descriptions are vivid and detailed; the voice is consistent and engrossing; the plot is painful, yet important for bringing to readers a story not often told in popular fiction and for doing so with great effect.


Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Governor Generals, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner