Keita Ali has been running all of his life. Hailing from Zantoroland, an island in the Indian Ocean that produces some of the fastest runners in the world, he is a rising star in his homeland with the chance to travel the world competing in the biggest marathons. But the political instability of his country makes it a dangerous place to live and after his father, a journalist, is killed, Keita knows that he must escape.
While running a marathon in a neighbouring country, Keita goes into hiding. He heads to AfricTown, a community in the wealthy Freedom State where many other refugees before him have sought shelter. But the government of Freedom State is determined to deport the refugees, and will go to great, clandestine, and terrible
lengths to do so. And Keita isn’t just running for his own life anymore, he’s running to save the life of his sister who is in trouble back in Zantoroland. He needs to win money from races to secure her freedom, all the while eluding the authorities.
And it's not just Keita. There are tens of thousands of people living illegally in Freedom State. Tens of thousands of people, running for their lives in various ways.
The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill, is a timely novel about people fleeing their homeland and seeking refuge in a country that doesn’t want them.
All you have to say to me is “new Lawrence Hill novel" and I am all over it. I have read both his fiction and non-fiction work and will continue to read anything he puts his name to. While this book wasn’t what I had pictured in my mind, his work has once again exceeded all of my expectations.
Hill doesn’t just writes stories, he crafts them. He is able to develop characters in extraordinary ways, giving them a backstory that is an incredible story in itself. By creating fictional countries of Zantoroland and Freedom State for this book, he is able to weave this novel together in any manner he wants and the result of that is a story that crosses borders and captures hearts.
This is not just the story of one person. The supporting characters are rich, each with their own connection to the plight of refugees. You have journalists, politicians, athletic coaches, teens, older people - everybody’s lives are touched by this, just as it is in real life. Hill puts to the page the stories of people we really only think of in passing.
Given the situation our world is in right now, this is such an important novel. The mass exodus of people from volatile situations is the most important issue we are facing right now and it’s on the minds of everyone (if it’s not, it should be.) This is why I love reading - it puts you in the middle of a situation you may otherwise not experience, and it gives a human face to what you would otherwise know only through media. This is something we need to be talking about and a book like this will help you to understand it.
If you’re reading this because you’re a fan of The Book of Negroes, know that it is a different kind of book. But it is just as good. Hill is brilliant at giving voices to those who can’t speak for themselves and opening our eyes to both our past and our present.