Friday, February 6, 2009

Life Underground

It's always interesting to read a book about which you know absolutely nothing. So when I received His Illegal Self by Peter Carey as a gift I carefully avoided reading the synopsis on the book flap and the blurb on the back cover. I didn't even look at the About The Author text on the back flap, and I'm really glad I didn't. Had I looked I would have discovered that Peter Carey also wrote “Oscar and Lucinda”, definitely not one of my favorite reads. I've forgotten most of that story, but the image of Oscar transporting that damn glass cathedral through the jungle as he doses laudanum is one I wish I could forget.

But this book tells a very different kind of story. If you're old enough to remember the radical student groups of the late sixties (think SDS, Weathermen), you may be intrigued by Carey's premise. It's 1972, and a seven year old boy named Che Selkirk, the child of two radicals now living underground, is being raised by his grandmother, a Park Avenue matron. Not surprisingly she has changed his name to Jay. But very early in the book his life takes a sharp turn as he is pulled back into the world of his parents. A great deal happens very quickly at the beginning of the story, and to describe it would be to deprive you of what for me was an enjoyable part of reading it – the exhilaration of seeing the unexpected events unfold.

The story is narrated primarily from Che's point of view, even though it's written in the third person. But occasionally Carey has to backtrack to fill in missing pieces that Che doesn't know. That's a little jarring, and the story definitely has a fragmented feeling. The latter part of the book is set in a hippie commune in Queensland Australia, and Carey's descriptions both of the natural world and of the weird dynamics of commune life are vivid and convincing. Occasionally Carey's Che sound more Australian than American, and at times his observations are too adult for a seven year old, but I thought he did an admirable job of telling the story from a child's perspective.

So my advice is this – if you're going to read this book don't read any reviews – it's better to be surprised. And if you have read this book I'd love to hear your opinion of the meaning of the last paragraph.

No comments:

Post a Comment