Book Review: Readings

Carey, an Australian native, is at his best when describing the minutiae of the wild, and less when grappling with his implausible premise


His Illegal Self

by Peter Carey
Knopf, 288 pp., $24.95

His Illegal Self, the 10th and latest novel from two-time Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey, takes its characters to harrowing and improbable extremes, a familiar theme in much of the author's work. This time around, it's 7-year-old Che (or Jay) Selkirk and his former babysitter, an Ivy League-educated radical known as Dial.

It's the early Seventies, and Che's parents are notorious underground radicals. The narrative switches points of view, from Che to Dial, as Dial, fresh from being appointed to the faculty of the English Department at Vassar College, picks Che up from his grandmother's elaborate Park Avenue apartment, under strict orders to deliver him to his infamous mother for a one-hour "play date," before returning him to the splendorous safety of the Upper East Side. The plot falters when Dial, en route with Che, receives a covert note (supposedly from Grandma) diverting her to Philadelphia. Unbelievably, Dial goes, whereupon she discovers that Che's mother has accidentally blown herself up with a homemade bomb. All the while, Che believes that Dial is his wayward mother. Instead of returning to New York and explaining the misunderstanding to the police, Dial runs away with Che in tow.

While it's exceedingly far-fetched that Dial would throw her life away and essentially kidnap a boy with whom she has little personal investment, the beauty of this novel lies in her and Che's endeavors to reconcile their unlikely circumstance and to love each other in a life "not like anything Dial had envisioned." The spectrum of Che's emotions, and his painful realization that Dial is not in fact his mother, is poignantly expressed.

Carey, an Australian native, is at his best when describing the minutiae of the wild – the cabbage moths and their wings "catching the last of the day's sunshine," the "inky green" rainforest, and "arm-thick vines wound around trees with skins like elephants." Ultimately, however, the story is crippled by its implausible premise, and where we are meant, like Dial and Che, to feel safe at last in the desolation, there is little solace.

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His Illegal Self, Peter Carey

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