Book Review: The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

February is traditionally known here as Black History month. On the last few days of the month, I decided to pick up the novel that has been on my TBR list for a year or so – The Illegal by Lawrence Hill. I had read, and enjoyed, his previous novel and thus opened this one with high expectations.

This story centres on Kieta Ali, a boy born on the mountainous island of Zantoroland (an island created in Hill’s imagination). All he ever wants to do when growing up is run. Zantoroland is one of the poorest nations in the world and, on this island, running is seen as a way to earn respect and wealth. Keita believes that through running he can escape poverty and gain respect – until he realises that his father’s outspoken political views requires him to run for his family’s survival. He escapes the island by signing up with a marathon agent (Anton Hamm) and escapes into Freedom State, a wealthy island nation that has elected a government committed to deporting illegal refugees living within its borders. Kieta’s existence in Freedom State is illegal and he works to live below the radar of the police force. He trains in secret, eludes capture, and runs for his life and the life of his sister.

The beginning of the novel is slow as the reader learns about the main character and the environment in which he lives. After 80 pages or so, the pace of the novel picks up and the narration gets more interesting. At this point in the novel, the action is more interesting and the reader becomes curious to discover how the main character will survive. The reader learns that Kieta has a strong will to survive. No matter what obstacles are put in his way, he focuses on his goal to run and to save his sister. His determination is mirrored in the Hill’s description of when he runs:

“As he ran up the toughest hill in the Buttersby Marathon, with Billy Deeds on his shoulder, Kieta Ali slowed just enough to control his breathing. To destroy his opponent’s will, he had only to sing a few bars and sound as if he could carry on forever. Kieta opted for a country song. He liked country music with catchy melodies and words that told a story. He would sing like the marathoners who had run past his family’s church in the Red Hills of Zantoroland. He would sing as if Deacon Andrews and his parents were still alive. He would sing as if he had not been hiding for weeks in Freedom State, and had no reason to wonder what had happened to his sister or to fear for his own life.” (p 120, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, 2015)

I became more invested in Kieta’s story the more I read the novel. And as I read I began thinking about refugees and the reasons they risk their lives when leaving the country of their birth. Many have valid reasons – and yet these reasons are not accepted by the government of the countries they seek refuge in. The novel gives the reader a brief glimpse into the life these refugees may be experiencing and may even suggest we feel empathy and some understanding for them.

Even though this novel was a little slow to begin with, I did enjoy reading it and gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. The story is well-written and crafted – and leaves the reader with something to think about.

Have you readThe Illegal? What did you think of the novel?

© Colline Kook-Chun, 2018

(This novel was the 12th in my 50 book pledge for 2018)

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