Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

His Illegal Self

Peter Carey

Knopf 2008

In the early 70s Che is eight years old and living with his wealthy grandmother in New York city. His parents are strangers to him, political extremists associated with Weather Underground-type groups. Peter Careys new novel begins the day Che is whisked off by a mysterious woman he assumes is his mother. Its an exciting adventure at first, and she hints that he will finally get to meet his father. Plans go awry, however, and Che and his mother Dial end up as fugitives, hiding out in the last place the FBI will think to look for them: a hippie commune near Nambour.

His Illegal Self revisits the environment Carey first created in his earlier novel Bliss. The social structure and living conditions on the Crystal Community are described with convincing detail. If Carey has never hacked through lantana, attended an MO general meeting, lived without power and town water, or raised vegetables despite rampant fauna and insects, then he has a phenomenally accurate imagination. Northern Rivers residents will find plenty to identify with here.

The novels main focus, however, is young Ches development, and the impact made by the activities of his parents. Craving a father figure, he is drawn to community neighbour Trevor, whose own past makes him a questionable influence. Dial struggles with the physical demands of hippie life, and the psychological burden of her responsibility for the child. On top of all this its the 70s, and Queensland is a police state run by men who never finished high school. They raided the hippies in Cedar Bay with helicopters and burned down their houses.

The second half of the book moves swiftly, but I cant comment further on the plot without spoiling it for potential readers.

Because its Carey telling the story, these simple elements are rendered in imaginative, poetic prose. The characters are conveyed so effectively, I was desperate to discover how their lives turned out. Theres subtle humour here, as well as Careys usual compassion for his flawed, struggling characters. Though it lacks the epic sweep of his earlier prize-winner Oscar and Lucinda, its still a great read. Like all his other novels, His Illegal Self shows Carey telling a distinctly Australian story in an international context,

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Square.

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