His Illegal Self

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

His Illegal Self

by Peter Carey

Faber & Faber HK$220

Peter Carey's 10 novels tend to toy with the slipperiness of truth without presuming to have a firm hold at any point. He writes of hoaxes and lies, often from the multiple perspectives of simpletons, thieves, confused victims and agenda-driven fanatics. The only words worth trusting in his stories, he seems to say, are dialogue and the vivid descriptions of landscape.

This time his dodgy perspectives come from an abandoned seven-year-old boy - or his adult self looking back - and a woman whose judgment is impaired by love, exhaustion from life on the run and involvement in a violent leftist movement.

Che Selkirk has been raised as Jay since his wealthy grandmother took responsibility for him. His parents are among America's most wanted for stoking revolution in an offshoot of the Weathermen. It's 1972 and America's terrorist enemy is made up of homegrown, Harvard-educated radicals with 'perfectly straight teeth, clear signs of class that contradicted their dowdy clothes, which were a sort of depressed portrait of the unhappy working class'.

Anna Xenos - known as Dial, short for dialectic - is on the fringe of this socialist movement. From a poorer background, she has worked her way through Harvard, occasionally as a secretary, and is poised for a career in teaching when she is contacted by Che's mother, an old friend. Dial feels a political and emotional obligation to collect the boy to visit the mother he can't remember.

On the way to the meeting, the mother is killed by a mismanaged bomb and Dial finds herself wanted for kidnapping Che, who believes she is his mother. Dial and Che are sent underground, emerging dazed and distraught in a revolutionary hippy's hell: Queensland, Australia. The 1960s are only just dawning Down Under and the suddenly snobbish Dial sees conservative Queensland as 'a police state run by men who never finished high school'. She finds the alternative 'ferals' just as small minded when they chide her for her ignorance of the world beyond New York. Dial has no idea that Australia is at war in Vietnam and that her cat is an introduced species whose hunting will harm the local environment. She responds with constant reminders that she went to Harvard.

Much of this is achieved in the first third of His Illegal Self. The remainder is spent stewing in tropical heat as the boy realises Dial is not his mother and naturally starts to pine for home. Being 'almost eight', he nevertheless enjoys the adventure of the Australian bush and meeting the damaged and deluded souls Carey dredges up from his days spent as a part-time resident of a remote hippy commune - while running a large advertising agency.

Dial's complicated feelings for Che become more twisted as she witnesses an 'unblemished boy' turn into a 'soul all curled up and fearful of attack'.

She swings from paralysing fear that her life is over to irrationally planning a future raising the boy. No convincing explanation is provided for why this smart woman with a yearning to teach at the selective Vassar College can't return the boy to his grandmother.

Dial spends a night hammering fence palings on the interior wall as decoration for her dilapidated shack, despite several warnings from Queenslanders that the unsuitable wood will shrink. Carey also has short-term decorative solutions to the structural flaws in his novel. At times he gives his book a rustic, distressed finish by switching narrators and using a boy's inexperience to fragment the tale. On other occasions he hides flaws with rich imagery: 'All around them were what are called cabbage moths, their wings catching the last of the day's sunshine, and above the moths were the bananas, their ripped-up leaves moving like fingers, and below was the inky green of rainforest where arm-thick vines wound around trees with skins like elephants. Beyond the hut, behind the car, the lonely darkness was bleeding along the course of Remus Creek and washing up into the muggy hills.'