three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
By: 
Peter Carey
user_rating: 
0

A-His Illegal SelfThe son of two 1960s radicals who have gone underground, seven-year-old Che lives with his grandmother in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. One day in 1972, a young woman named Dial appears at their doorstep to collect him for a secret visit with his long-lost mother. But when she hears that Che’s mom has blown herself up constructing a bomb, Dial pretends to be Che’s mother. As the kidnapping reaches TV news, Dial and Che go on the run—from Philadelphia to Oakland to Seattle and, finally, to a hippie commune in Queensland, Australia. As they struggle with their new life, their bond strengthens, and they learn that nothing, including motherhood, is what is appears to be.
Knopf. 272 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 030726372X

New York Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[A] book as psychologically taut as a Patricia Highsmith thriller and as starkly beautiful as Mulisch’s modern classic [The Assault]. … Carey gives weight and heft to the concept of class struggle, showing that the conflict occurs not just between groups but among individuals, even within a single person." Liesl Schillinger

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[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. … Carey’s fiction doesn’t offer definite answers or easy consolations but something much richer; a complex, nuanced understanding of the ‘littered path’ that constitutes each human being’s ‘comic and occasionally disastrous life.’" Wendy Smith

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The genius of the novel is Carey’s portrayal of this polite little boy, who carries around his ‘papers’ and admonishes Dial not to yell, not to swear, not to tell lies. … In 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

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Once [Carey] launches into a tale, he’s always worth following. … There is more than a bit of a muddle in the middle as he fills in the narrative blanks and introduces ragtag minor characters, including Trevor, whose motives are shady but whose affection for Che is pure, and Phil, a lawyer and nudist." Ellen Kanner

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Carey’s technique perfectly relates the way experiences happen to children, often misunderstood but accepted blindly because of the powerlessness to intercede. … Through Dial’s impossible struggle between her personal desires and political ideals, Carey reminds us of a time in America when people risked everything for a cause, for the dream of a better country." Michelle Quint

Denver Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Adding Trevor to the mix, interesting though he is to watch, brings complication and unanswered questions. … The dialogue, unquotationed and terse, comes to feel teeth-grindingly tense." Robin Vidimos

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[The] 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. … Mr. Carey never offers any remotely plausible reason for why Dial, who has just been made an assistant professor at Vassar, would decide to kidnap Che and flee to Australia." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

The mother-son relationship forms the heart of Peter Carey’s new novel, and critics agreed that the touching bond that develops between the two gives the book its merit. Carey packs a strong emotional punch as he explores Dial’s conflicted view of motherhood and Che’s desperate love, attachments, and doubts. No less compelling are Carey’s sparkling descriptions of the Australian outback. The majority of reviewers, however, felt that the novel bogs down in the middle with the introduction of an Australian hippie and that Dial’s motives for whisking Che to Queensland remain unclear. Nonetheless, set against the protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, His Illegal Self offers a clear-eyed, affecting portrait of the era.