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the complete review - fiction
His Illegal Self
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B+ : flitting fun
See our review for fuller assessment.
Not quite a consensus, but most at least impressed by his dazzle
From the Reviews:
- "His Illegal Self is concerned with loss of innocence but also with the painstaking creation of personal trust. (…) His Illegal Self is a sad story but it has a warmth and directness, an earthy poignancy, that one does not immediately associate with Carey's boisterously inventive fiction. (…)His Illegal Self might be a relatively straightforward and understated tale by Carey's usual standards but it is a fine novel." - James Ley, The Age
- "Carey's masterful de-familiarisation of the Australian experience holds a mirror to us as well as to the cultural differences that inherently shape American-Australian relations. The bush at the back of Coolum is like a Jackson Pollock painting. Australians speak like hobbits. Differences aren't resolved by hiring lawyers. Dial can't understand why Australians hate Americans when Americans don't even know they exist. This resentment towards the US and its blind assumption that others will share its world view has a contemporary resonance that lifts the novel out of its period. (…) Carey is not returning to his past with this novel. He has never left it. (…) His Illegal Self is best seen as neither a departure nor a return but a natural development in Carey's impressive oeuvre." - Liam Davison, The Australian
- "Peter Carey's magnificent novel about the burnishing ordeals of three waifs is told as an intricate series of missing pieces. His Illegal Self is a novel of narrative complexity and blindingly direct emotion not so much bestowed upon its readers as won by them. The effort we make is not really effortful, though. Carey's writing is a series of insights that incite and arrest. Above all he has created three alluring, unexpected, and intensely moving characters who do not so much reveal themselves as transform themselves into revelation." - Richard Eder, Boston Globe
- "Peter Carey's tenth novel throbs with a queasy, visceral energy. (…) Mr Carey raises interesting questions about parenting, class, the hypocrisy of hippiedom and America's relation to the rest of the world. The book is also funny, particularly in the description of some of its male characters, who bring to mind the cartoon creations of Robert Crumb: rank, weedy, lustful. (…) One aspect of the book is less pleasing. Something is wrong with the narrative voice. The diction is mostly American ("a real big grin"; "pissed" as in angry), but with occasional Aussie inflections." - The Economist
- "The theme of wanting to belong in Australia is pursued too intensely to allow much light in, as if Carey, based in New York, were somehow afraid that his homeland is imaginatively slipping away from him. (...) This is an intriguing book but it has an unsatisfying core. Its characters, for all that they search for a new life in Australia, fail to come alive on the page. Ciphers for Carey’s ideas about Australianness, they are an odd mix of emotional reticence and rawness, lacking the wherewithal to explain their actions to each other but forever dissolving into tears and group hugs." - Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Financial Times
- "The novel takes on a woozy, distracted quality. Its shifts of time and perspective become less purposeful and organised, and as the characters start coming to uneasy terms with their new neighbours -- a damaged potential father-figure called Trevor and an assortment of officious commune-dwellers -- a lot of the energy goes out of Carey's storytelling. This is made all the more frustrating by the interesting antagonisms and misunderstandings hovering around the edge of the plot, and the interest of the setting in general. (…) (T)he new novel seems badly paced and weirdly dull. Carey is a formidable writer, and this isn't a complete disaster by any means, but it's hard not to see it getting filed under "occasional misfires"." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian
- "Peter Carey tears away the romance and ridicule which clouds our vision of Sixties and Seventies counter-culture in a novel which begins as a bitter thriller, with drug addicts in Greyhound bus stations, then turns into a version of Eden when Dial is accepted by hippies living on the edge of a rainforest in Queensland. These stories are told and retold through Che and Dial. Each has two names and several identities -- straight and hippie, iconic and real -- to match the worlds they journey through. If this seems a story from our time, not 40 years ago, it is because Carey writes with beauty, audacity and wit about this lost generation of idealists and ideologues." - Wendy Brandmark, The Independent
- "While this feels problematic in the first half of the novel, which has an almost thriller-ish forward pulse to it, in the child-and-reluctant-guardian-flee-from-peril sub-genre, in the second half of the novel, where Anna and Jay come to terms with their new life, we are far closer to Carey's natural territory, and it is here that the novel comes together." - William Sutcliffe, Independent on Sunday
- "Relating these developments from the alternating perspectives of a perplexed child and a terrified adult who has been betrayed, Carey captures the jittery, paranoid atmosphere of early 1970s, when those in the counterculture (with considerable justification) saw a cop behind every tree. His dense narrative doles out information in discrete parcels, gradually unfolding the sequence of events as Dial blunderingly attempts to create a refuge for herself and Che on a remote commune in Queensland." - Wendy Smith, The Los Angeles Times
- "But this is also the story of a very young mind oscillating between antagonistic conceptions of itself. (…) Che and Anna are trapped in relativity to each other -- she cannot outrun him, nor he her." - Helen Oyeyemi, New Statesman
- "I realize this is a trivial complaint, but the novel rivals the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series in its mind-numbing capacity to repeat ridiculous names (…..) But what seems at first to be the novel’s sustaining imaginative trellis -- the sharply limited perspective of a confused boy suffering the painful fallout of violent radicalism -- collapses about 30 pages in. This leaves the irrepressible vine of Carey’s talent to wander, without restraint, all over the fictional garden, where it smothers nearby growths, gets tangled on old rusty shovels, and finally meanders off under the deck to drop its underripe fruit in the dark. Although the book’s plot sounds, in the abstract, like the kind of thing that would keep you reading for solid unblinking days (…) in reality it manages only a few short bursts of legitimately page-turning momentum." - Sam Anderson, New York
- "His Illegal Self is exhilarating partly because the depth of field has narrowed so dramatically. Reading this novel, Carey's tenth, is like peering at the human heart, at the world itself, through the distorted precision of a magnifying glass (.....) Che's limited, idiosyncratic understanding builds both narrative and emotional suspense. The effect, throughout the novel, is that of something between a summer daydream and a nightmare." - Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books
- "In the construction of plot and the manipulation of coincidence, Mr. Carey loves pushing the bounds of plausibility, but His Illegal Self succeeds because the reaction of his characters to their outrageous fortunes always remains securely tethered to the real." - Giles Harvey, The New York Sun
- "(T)he book, like many of his earlier efforts, turns out to be a herky-jerky affair that lurches between the compelling and the lackadaisical, the intriguing and the preposterous. Its basic premise is so absurd that the reader starts off burdened with a passel of doubts. (…) Because the reader never for a moment buys this setup, a lot of Mr. Carey’s impressive authorial energy is wasted in an attempt to vamp his way through Dial’s and Che’s back stories, which we learn in bits and pieces through a narrative that continually loops back on itself in little flashbacks. (…) (W)hile the portrait of this wild child attests to Mr. Carey’s ability to write just as powerfully about heartfelt, emotional matters as he has, in the past, about raffish adventurers and outlaws, this achievement does not, in the end, compensate for this novel’s ridiculous mise-en-scène or its longueurs and lazy, haphazard storytelling." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
- "This idea, this truth -- that a child in distress is hard-wired to seek protection from a woman, any woman, whatever her failings, her confusions, her ideology -- is the heartbeat that races through Peter Carey’s enthralling new novel, His Illegal Self, a book as psychologically taut as a Patricia Highsmith thriller and as starkly beautiful as Mulisch's modern classic." - Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review
- "Carey’s often beautiful novel, one of his best recent works, has the bruising tang of all his fiction, in which crooked colloquialism (frequently Australian vernacular), and poetic formality combine. The result is brilliantly vital: the world bulges out of the sentences." - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "Were it not for a couple of beautiful set pieces early on -- Dial at her Vassar interview, in twinset and court shoes; Grandma Selkirk trying to mitigate the shame of her daughter's pregnancy with all sorts of generous offers to Harvard -- His Illegal Self would be an impenetrable mystery. As it is, its opacity is both a virtue and a frustration." - Rachel Cooke, The Observer
- "His Illegal Self is an unfurling fog. Carey's technique perfectly relates the way experiences happen to children, often misunderstood but accepted blindly because of the powerlessness to intercede. And so must the reader go forward, albeit frustrated and confused at times, to experience this strange adventure through a young boy's eyes. (…) Perhaps Carey's only occasional misstep is his Aussie-tinged characterization of his young American protagonist (…..) But once he finds familiar ground in his homeland, Carey blossoms, rewarding his reader with bizarre and nuanced characters" - Michelle Quint, San Francisco Chronicle
- "In His Illegal Self, Carey has channelled all of his quirks into an extraordinarily powerful fiction. The hero of the novel is seven years old, brave, needy, resilient and fragile, flung into extremes and out of his depth. He, like the reader, is struggling to make sense of a world that comes at him in dislocated gobbets of intense sensory experience, in which the voices of adults swirl above his head. (…)His Illegal Self is a love story. I have never read a more powerful account of the sensuous intensity of maternal feelings." - Caroline Moore, The Spectator
- "Flashbacks, hints and delayed revelations gradually piece together a picture of what occurred on the day of his abduction, and earlier. But Carey’s prime focus is on what happens to Che and Dial amid the dense tangles of lantana shrub, vines as thick as arms and rampaging tropic vegetation hemming in the ramshackle hippie commune at Yandina, where they end up. (…) His Illegal Self brims with robustly unsentimental likeability." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "The opening chapters are a tour de force, a virtuoso performance by a writer fully confident of his powers and, in a way, of his ability to get away with anything. Everything is seen through the eyes of a child (…..) Eventually Carey takes pity on his readers and offers explanations. (…) His narrative twists and turns are spectacular, often outrageous and shameless - but that seems to be the point: a dazzling display of sleight-of-hand with a devil-may-care disregard for what some might regard as literary good manners. By and large, Carey's boldness and nonchalance pay sizeable dividends." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald
- "(A) richly absorbing novel which can be relished for the beauties of its prose and the pertinence of its themes, as well as for the progressively taut pull that it exerts on the emotions." - John Preston, The Telegraph
- "Where Theft was bursting with verbal energy, this is milder, more muted and unnecessarily confusing. Though the plot contains many elements of grand drama -- kidnapping, rogue socialists, class conflict -- the story still manages to feel smallish. Nevertheless, even when not on top form, Peter Carey is a skilful writer, and for fictional fare on a cold February night you could do a lot worse." - Lionel Shriver, The Telegraph
- "His Illegal Self, Carey's tenth novel, pushes to the extreme questions of personal, cultural and historical inheritance that have long preoccupied him." - Ruth Scurr, The Times
- "In Che Selkirk, Carey has drawn a persuasive picture of an identity in search of definition that is distinctive both for its emotional richness and its light touch. (…) The helter-skelter action of the novel’s first half slows down so abruptly that one cannot help suspecting that it was a device, all along, to get the ersatz mother and child into an Australian setting. As the two try to settle into the outback commune where Dial hopes they will be safe from the law, the novel’s focus shifts resolutely from the political to the personal. (…) The iron grip Carey keeps on the emotional content of his material ensures that the novel always steers well clear of sentimentality. The ending is unexpected, and deliberately downbeat. If I have a cavil, it is that Carey does not relax his hold at the very moment when we really do need to know more." - Elizabeth Lowry, Times Literary Supplement
- "At its best, this curious novel is a study of disorientation, of knowing neither where nor who one is; the unmapped Australian wilderness provides a strange and lovely analog to Jay's mysterious parentage." - Abigail Deutsch, The Village Voice
- "His Illegal Self develops the kind of emotional impact that renders it even more enriching and satisfying. (…) T)his may be the first novel in which Carey allows himself to slow down. There are even some languid pages here and there as the months stretch out, but they're quickly interrupted by new waves of panic. (…) (I)n His Illegal Self the most surprising maneuver of all isn't so much a sudden revelation but his tender portrayal of the desperate love between this accidental mother and a little boy who she knows deserves better." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In short chapters (fifty-four of them), with short -- often just one-line -- paragraphs and rapid-fire dialogue, His Illegal Self is a story of 1970s naïveté and innocence.
At the centre is young Che, born in 1965 to Radcliffe student Susan Selkirk and local SDS leader Dave Rubbo just as the Viet Nam protests were heating up.
Susan's wealthy mother, Phoebe, is (and has the means to be) a fixer, and she fixed it up that there wasn't too much of a scandal, and that Susan could continue with her studies, but Susan and and Dave weren't just rebellious; they became radicalized.
Phoebe got custody of the child -- whom she prefers to cal 'Jay' --, and that sent the parents even further over the edge -- and, eventually, into the underground.
When the book opens Che is only seven.
Curious about his parents, he has picked up stray information about them (though certainly not from his grandmother, who has made it her mission to protect him from all that) and he does long for them; conveniently, then, a mysterious woman appears at their apartment and: "he recognized her straightaway".
They all go on a little expedition to Bloomingdale's -- and then suddenly the woman whisks Che away, into the subway.
Che is a child, not sure of the mysterious ways of adults in any case, and he pretty much -- as the woman also tells him to -- goes with the flow.
In some ways he's elated about what's happening, and heartbreakingly he asks:
Can I call you Mom ?
They're on the run, and soon in a netherworld of mysterious contacts and instruction; all along little is what it seems or what one expects (or hopes for).
Dial is in way, way over her head, and if the original idea was admirable
-- to reunite mother and child -- the execution missed by a mile.
In short order Dial and Che find themselves hiding out in the Australian outback, unwelcome visitors -- Che is too prominent a figure, a missing boy whose picture has, presumably, pretty much gone around the world -- in the commune-world they find themselves stuck in.
Far from any anarchic, hippie ideals the community they find themselves turns out to be as petty and small-minded as any -- and considerably grubbier.
And Dial knows what she's waded into:
She paused, her mouth open, searching in his eyes for something.
You can call me Dial, she said at last, her color gone all high.
What sort of name is that ?
It's a nickname, baby.
There is no rule, said the lawyer.
They're hippies, jeez.
Che, of course, still has his dreams -- about his father, especially.
But even he comes to eventually blame Dial: "You shouldn't have stolen me", he rebukes her.
I've been in communes before, Mr.Warriner.
They're full of fucking rules, believe me.
Dial's questionable choices -- which begin with her going to the Selkirk's at a time when she really should have been focussing on something else -- certainly make things worse, but she can't help herself.
Unfortunately, she acts pretty much on instinct -- with predictable results:
Then she cried outright.
She wanted to live somewhere pretty but she did not know how.
The narrative zips along nicely, with jumps back (and a few glimpses ahead), painting a distinctly unglamorous and unromantic picture of those opposed to the powers that be.
Che is central, yet more object than subject, a child mixed up in something beyond his comprehension and just here for the ride -- even as the ride is all about him.
There's a lot for him to deal with, but the real piecing together has to be left for later and off-stage, as he matures.
Meanwhile Dial isn't exactly inept, but she seems to dig herself in deeper with every step she takes.
Carey also doesn't offer any neat resolution -- though there are a few hints of the future.
But the fun of the novel is the present, 1970s anti-establishment scenes (both the extremist and the passive) that are definitely not rose-coloured.
And there are also mother and daughter Selkirk, who make quite a pair.
Carey is best with his quick brushstroke portraits and snapshots, and the presentation -- scattershot, in part, as it moves back and forth -- is effective, especially for how he introduces some of the unexpected twists along the way.
It feels somewhat thin in places, with a few holes and some of the behaviour seeming rather unlikely, but on the whole it's quite enjoyable.
And there are parts when Carey gets going that completely sweep the reader along.
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His Illegal Self:
Other books by Peter Carey under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Travel-related books
- See Index of Australian literature at the complete review
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About the Author:
Australian author Peter Carey was born in 1943.
He has won the Booker Prize, the Miles Franklin Award, and the Commonwealth Prize.
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© 2008-2012 the complete review
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