I've had a very strange on, then consistently off affair with the writing of Peter Carey for years now.
On, when I suddenly dragged my reading up by the boot laces back in the late 1980's, the days of small children and decided that by reading Booker Prize list books I was perhaps going some way to negating the ongoing effects of Topsy and Tim go to the Park/ the Dentist/ School/ the Zoo etc.
My first read of 1989 was Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, and though it was all a bit of an odd blur and I'm not that sure I really followed it, I felt like a grown-up again and just assumed that literature had moved on since I'd last read anything worthwhile.
Then I moved into seriously 'off' mode with Peter Carey and didn't pick up another until Theft, A Love Story and the Bookerthon 2006. I struggled with the book, especially the UPPER CASE, dismissed it as Booker frippery and said so and then nailed my colours firmly, but wrongly as always, to the mast of Carry Me Down by M.J.Hyland.
So along came not one but two copies of His Illegal Self (roll up later today for a free prize draw for the spare one) and cynical old me wasn't going to be impressed by a name, or browbeaten by a reputation, or even charmed by a cover bearing a beatific child fixing me with a penetratingly angelic gaze, just daring me to dislike the book...go on, just you dare...is he about to cry?
I've heard wind of the reviews, and there would seem to be slapdown mutterings and chunnerings afoot and the ones I've skimmed are not favourable and give away just about every plot detail, but really I might just as well say Booker and His Illegal Self in the same sentence and get that bit over with first.You don't need to be Einstein to come up with the formula, Carey + New Novel = Booker
Except that I think, in fact I'm going to be brave and say it, if this book makes it through it will deserve to be there.
There's no doubt about it, Peter Carey writes well and truly out of the box, probably pushes the envelope too, whatever that means, and it's an unusal ride but I never got left behind. I like books that take you forward in a state of blind unknowing and then explain how you got there later, and in the case of a book that circles around the life of a child, that's completely legitimate and representative of this child's life.
We unwittingly do it to children all the time and I was left in no doubt how Che was feeling as I too struggled to know where I was or what was going on or what he should do.
Seven-year old Che, the son of political activists, suddenly finds himself jettisoned from his privileged and sheltered life as Jay living in New York with his wealthy maternal grandmother. He only knows snippets of his background but has dreamt of the moment when his renegade parents will break him out and claim him. He thinks it has happened when he suddenly finds himself in the company of Dial, someone he thinks he recognises, and before he knows it he's on the other side of the world, living in a hippy commune in Queensland, Australia.
There how about that for a quick resume of the action?
Peter Carey has chosen the age of his child protagonist well, seven the perfect age for all things to be possible, life's straightforward in that can-be-done sort of way, making Che's craving and seeking of the truth all the more poignant. He struggles desperately to make sense of what has happened in an effort to map and pin down his already confused identity back into some semblance of order. Uprooted he clings to every last bit of emotional flotsam that might just lead him back to safer, known territory and I was with him every inch of the way. I made as many wrong assumptions as Che did, clung onto all his hopes, shared all his fears, loved the kitten in his pocket as much as he did.
When Che wanted out so did I.
When Che wanted in so did I.
I was less enamoured with Dial's life, her seeming stupidity, less sympathetic to her cause but I think that was Peter Carey's intention, this is a book ostensibly about a child.
The adult world mediated through the eyes of a child never fails to impress me if it's done well, and for all the Carey style that many, including me, may have baulked at in the past, I think he does do it well. Tragedy, fear, misunderstanding, misplaced hopes, and adults all acting impulsively in the supposed best interests of a child whilst the child acts on instinct, it's all here and I couldn't put the book down.
It's a jittery, jumpy read, bit like all the jungle bugs and bats, flits all over the place, never seems to settle into a flow but that's Che's life and in the end those things didn't matter, because what did matter was that central to His Illegal Self for this reader was Che, a little boy who
...did cry, secretly, mourning everything he lost, all the cold empty hollows, the marrow stolen from his bones'
then as Dial hugs him,
'she could feel his frailty, his beating small boy heart'
and I felt his beating small boy heart too.