Lawrence Hill’s political thriller short on emotion

The Illegal is well told but fails to grab you


THE ILLEGAL by Lawrence Hill (HarperCollins), 400 pages, $34.99 cloth. Rating: NNN


The Illegal, Lawrence Hill’s follow-up to The Book Of Negroes, hits stores just as its theme – struggling refugees – is blowing up all over the world. But though it’s absolutely of the moment, his political thriller lacks emotional punch.

Gifted long-distance runner Keita escapes from Zantoroland, a fictional island off the African coast, to the neighbouring Freedom State island after his activist father is murdered by the authorities. He races to survive but has even more at stake when his sister is imprisoned in Zantoroland.

In Freedom State, local madam Lula rules AfricTown, where she leases storage containers as homes to illegals, who can disappear into the crowds. She’s one of many excellently drawn characters, a hero to some and exploiter to others, a strong woman regardless of her questionable ethics. 

Rocco Calder, Freedom State’s minister of immigration, is also a nuanced persona, grappling with corruption at the top and his sense that he’s being used. Best is Viola Hill, a black lesbian journalist who won’t let anything – least of all her dependence on a wheelchair – stop her from getting the story. Should Hill want to consider a series about journalists solving tough cases in the field, Viola would make a terrific central character. 

But The Illegal can’t match the historical force that drives The Book Of Negroes, where sections on slave ships’ brutal conditions and the soul-crushing task of harvesting the makings for indigo shed new literary light on previously uncharted territory. Here, Hill shares his personal experience as a long-distance runner, but the details aren’t exactly revelatory.

And to make the political thriller work, he falls for some cheesy strategies: the baddie reveals all when he thinks he’s invulnerable Viola and Keita’s sister wind up in the same jail cell. Really? Villains are two-dimensional. No surprise the book’s already been optioned for film.

But Hill does evoke the moral issues and political corruption related to refugees in Freedom Land, a place built on the backs of slaves yet with a robust democracy. 

And he sure as hell knows how to get you turning pages. This is a very entertaining, well-written book.

Hill talks about The Illegal Tuesday (September 8) at the Reference Library. See listings.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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