Richard Eder, Boston Globe, February 10, 2008
A jigsaw puzzle’s compulsion lies not just or even mainly in the pieces, but in the gaps to be filled. 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.
Carey, who is Australian, the winner of two Booker Prizes, and a novelist of great range and variety, is never less than clever and usually much more than that. Here he achieves the texture and human depth he reached in “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Jack Maggs,” perhaps his two best. Except that “His Illegal Self” is better.
Set mainly in the rough, hot countryside of Australia’s Queensland – Carey colors his story with its disquieting landscape and light – the novel begins on New York’s East Side. There the immensely rich and arrogant Phoebe Selkirk is raising her 7-year-old grandson, Che. He is sea-wrack from the churned tides of the radical ’60s; soon after his birth his young mother, Susan, went underground and robbed a bank.
Now, by grudging arrangement with the grandmother, Che is to be taken for an hour’s reunion with Susan at the Port Authority bus terminal. The courier, whom Che hungrily takes for the mother he never knew, is Anna Xenos, daughter of a Greek butcher in Boston. She had been a scholarship student and classmate of Susan’s at Harvard. For the months before Susan disappeared into the violent left, Anna was nanny for her baby. The father, also a student radical, went underground at the same time.
The rendezvous is missed; instead, Anna is slipped instructions to take Che to Philadelphia for the meeting. That same day – mirroring a real Weather Underground event – Susan blows herself up assembling a home-made bomb.
Fearing arrest despite her innocent involvement, Anna flees to the West Coast, where Susan’s clandestine associates give her $30,000, tickets to Australia, and the promise that the movement will take care of them there. It is a lie.
Both Anna and Che are victims, as Carey depicts it, of the heedlessness of privilege, with the hard-left Susan as arrogant as her aristocratic mother. Anna, about to receive an assistant professorship at Vassar, is derailed by her old friend’s lordly telephoned summons. (The glamour of Susan’s “most-wanted” press celebrity, and the intoxication of the prestigious job offer – Anna suddenly is somebody – befuddle her into what should have been a brief if harebrained venture.)
And now both are waifs and stranded. Returning to the United States would get Anna jailed for kidnapping. And the worshipful Che gradually realizes that the “mother” he thought would bring him into real life and adventure and out of his grandmother’s stultifying cocoon hasn’t the slightest idea what to do. (Anna can’t bring herself to tell him his real mother is dead.)
Carey draws a marvelously human portrait of the two of them: the child loving the woman, dependent on her and furious she has landed them in such misery, and Anna, resenting the unwanted burden, yet bound by her own angry love.
We can understand both loves even as Carey continually astonishes us with their wild detail. In Anna he has created someone strong, messed up, and uncertain in her purposes; an uncertainty that makes her not just a fascinating character but a great one. And Che, injured, outraged, yet struggling flowerlike toward any possible sunlight, is one of the remarkable children of present-day fiction.
Hitching a ride out of Sydney, they are picked up by Trevor, a kind of shady survivalist who has built himself a hidden compound, lives on the margins of the law, and arms himself in case of police incursion. Anna, herself fearing arrest, buys a decrepit shack in a hippie commune.
Trevor seems sinister at first, yet he keeps turning up to help. Bit by bit he wins over Che, putting him to work in his garden, talking to him, and in short assuming the role of the father the boy longs for and has never known. He gives off a sense of danger, yet we come to see him for what he is: a third waif, raised and abused in an orphanage, and making his own rough, picaresque way. For him Che is a fellow orphan.
The story, told in gaps and doublings back, proceeds from there. The details of struggling survival, lushly and vividly recounted, are also the details of slow transformation – for Trevor as well as Anna and Che. A home is created, remarkably, and movingly. And also briefly: The police, of course, are after them.
Carey writes no real ending; we write it for ourselves. He has created three characters so fully alive that he is able to relinquish them to their futures. His art is such that what is not told is as present to us as all that has been told so well.
Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.