Cory Reviews THE ILLEGAL by Lawrence Hill

I am a fan of Lawrence Hill. I’ve read and loved his past books and have a signed first edition of The Book of Negroes in a prime spot on my bookshelf. Full disclosure: I also work for his publisher so I’m biased there too. I’m a fan of his writing–definitely–but I’ve gotten to know him a little and worked with him often and I’m a fan of the man too.

I first met Larry before The Book of Negroes was published. Before it won Canada Reads; before it won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; before it was a special Illustrated Gift Edition; before it was a blockbuster television miniseries.

Of course, all of that commercial success doesn’t even touch upon the cultural impact of The Book of Negroes–a book that revealed pieces of Canadian history while challenging us with an honest depiction of slavery–a book now taught widely in Canadian schools.

So how does a writer follow that kind of success? Masterfully, in my opinion.

Readers expecting a sequel to The Book of Negroes will find a very different book in The Illegal. Like The Book of Negroes this new book centres on the struggle of one character, Keita Ali. Keita, like Aminata, lives in a world that has seemingly been set up to eat him alive. An elite marathoner, Keita leaves his country for fear that the society which destroyed his family will ultimately claim him too. He becomes a man without home or country; he is also a man without an identity living in a world that would deny him one. Soon he learns that, as an undocumented immigrant, he must literally run to stay alive.

I kept thinking of all the people who live like Keita every day. I have a privileged life where I only read about these issues in novels and hear them debated on TV. The Illegal feels real, it feels…imminent. In The Book of Negroes Lawrence Hill showed us something of our past, in The Illegal he is showing us how much further we have to go. As the book’s jacket says, This is the New Underground.

And yet, there is comic relief in this novel! And romance! And thrills! Set in a modern world not dissimilar to our own, Hill has drawn several fantastic characters around Keita who push the action. There are times, as Keita runs, that my own pulse quickened and I found myself breathing in sync with Hill’s writing and Keita’s running…like the drum beat of an uptempo song. That’s how masterful Lawrence Hill is as a writer. He has the ability to challenge us while also, simply, telling a great story.

Like The Book of Negroes, The Illegal is a powerful novel that will challenge the reader to re-examine what they believe about immigration and what they hear about the topic. (Those who think Donald Trump is simply comic relief in an over-extended election campaign will hopefully think again). And like that previous book The Illegal is an incredibly story that you will want to talk about and pass on and hold a precious first edition on your bookshelf, like me.

I hope you like it and would love to hear what you think.

Find me on Twitter at @corybeatty

Ed Note: See Lawrence Hill on his cross-Canada tour. Click here for locations.

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