*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.