Peter Carey

"His Illegal Self"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte AUG 26, 2006)

Ever since he can remember, Che Selkirk has imagined vivid portraits of his mother and his father. The result of a hasty union between two radical Ivy Leaguers, Dave Rubbo and Susan Selkirk, Che has been under the guardianship of his Park Avenue grandmother for years. Despite his grandmother's persistent efforts to bring him up “Victorian” so he can watch no television (and therefore find out the truth about his radical parents), Che (whom Grandma calls Jay), picks up snatches of information about his parents from the people around him. There's the teenage neighbor Cameron Fox who gives Che a full-page picture of his father from Life magazine. “You have a right to know,” Cameron tells Che. “Your father is a great American.” Then there were the pictures of his mother strewn about the apartment and the grandmother's place in Kenoza Lake, New York. Che's imagined parents take on such strong color that one day when a young woman walks in through the door and Grandma entrusts him to her care, Che knows it can only be mom. The year is 1972 and Che is eight. “He had thought of her so many nights and here she was, exactly the same, completely different—honey-colored skin and tangled hair in fifteen shades. She had Hindu necklaces, little silver bells around her ankles, an angel sent by God.”

Even better mom promises to lead him to a big surprise. Che can hardly believe himself: First his mother, now he will soon meet his real father. “His real life was just starting,” he thinks, “He was going to see his dad.”

Unfortunately for the boy, Dial can deliver no such happiness. As it turns out the “angel” is not his mother as Che had hoped, but a woman who wants to be addressed as “Dial” and whose surprise for the boy never seems to materialize. Instead the mission she has been sent on, to bring son Che over to visit his real mother Susan Selkirk, for a one-hour “play date” has gone horribly awry. In a quick shift of narrative voice, Carey explains how motherhood never managed to dampen Susan Selkirk's radical philosophies. Nevertheless, desperate for a fleeting glimpse of her boy before she again goes on the lam, she ropes friend and one-time fellow activist, “Dial” (Anna Xenos) to arrange for a meeting between mother and son. Before the meeting ever takes place however, Susan is accidentally killed in a bomb explosion she was trying to rig, and Dial and Che's mugs are all over the evening news.

After being on the run in different cities over a short period of time and after having clocked many motel hours together, some fellow revolutionaries (including Dad Dave Rabbo) pad Dial with a whole lot of cash. She and Che are packed off to Australia. Yes, the outbacks of Australia. Peter Carey has lived in New York for quite a few years and is a native Australian. So one can't help but wonder if the sudden transplanting of Dial and  Che onto the outback landscape is merely a ruse to steer the novel into what would be comfortable territory for the author.

Nobody would think to look for Dial in Australia of course. Heck, even she didn't know where this place was. “She had no idea of what Australia even was. She would not have imagined a tomato would grow in Australia, or a cucumber,” Carey writes. “She could not have named a single work of Australian literature or music. Why should she? It was only temporary.”

Carey's plotting in His Illegal Self is as imaginative (and some would say, unchecked) as in his previous works, especially My Life As A Fake. As Dial and Che slowly settle into a hippie commune in Queensland, they run into many colorful characters including an orphaned Englishman called Trevor and a lawyer with questionable credentials called Phil Warriner.

In one of the book's many plus points, Carey does an absolutely fantastic job of painting the Queensland countryside. Here as the story pauses to catch its breath, the reader hopes for some clues about Dial's behavior. It is never very convincingly clear why she had to dump her Vassar job (she was about to become a junior lecturer there) and take on this muddling assignment. Carey chooses to avoid answering these weighty questions focusing instead on the precarious relationship between Dial and Che. Che starts out with complete trust in his “mother” and Carey beautifully portrays his gradual resignation upon realizing the full extent of the truth. “Dial, I don't want you caught,” Che once tells her, “what would happen to me then?”

Despite the few loose ends, His Illegal Self proves to be one of the more compulsively readable novels released this year. It is to Carey's credit that such unlikely material as a touching love story between a reluctant mother and a rather serious young boy turns out to be such a gripping page-turner—right up to its absorbing if somewhat sentimental end.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 36 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from His Illegal Self at The Borzoi Reader

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About the Author:

Peter CareyPeter Carey was born in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, Australia in 1943. His parents had a General Motors dealership, and sent himto Geelong Grammar School, one of the leading private schools. Carey studied briefly at Monash University, where he failed a science degree. After leaving university, Carey worked in advertising in Melbourne and London and started to read passionately. In the 1980s, he opened his own advertising firm with Bani McSpedden. In 1990 Carey and his wife (a theater director), and his son moved to New York, where he taught creative writing at University of New York.

Carey is Australia's most celebrated living writer. He has won the Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize and every major Australian literary prize at least twice.

He now lives in New York City with his wife and son. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014