Che is a poor little rich boy. Brought up to a life of privilege by his wealthy grandmother, he has few friends, is never allowed to watch TV, and spends most of his time in isolation at the family lakeside getaway. Photos of his beautiful, blond mother adorn his lovely New York apartment but he never meets her; his father is an outcast, without even a photo to remember him by. Although he senses the mystery surrounding his birth, he is never told the details of his protected existence. Then, suddenly, everything changes; a beautiful woman breezes into the apartment, Hindu bells around her ankles, honey coloured skin, tangled long hair - and Che knows that his mother has come to take him away. Taking him by the hand, she pulls him away from his grandmother, away from the comfort and affluence, away into the nearest subway to what he realises is the "real world". Thus begins a flight from authority that will turn Che from an innocent and protected child into a wary and streetwise young man; an outcast from society. Without understanding how or what is happening, he is dragged from hotel to motel; from America to Australia; from polite society to a hippy commune deep in the bush. The reasons behind the mysterious journey will gradually become clear, and alongside this the developing love between the boy and the woman he calls mother deepens into a relationship that nobody can pull apart.
Peter Carey specialises in creating the oddball characters and uncompromising plots, and this story of 1970s naïveté and innocence is no exception. Dial is a young academic who reluctantly finds herself playing the role of mother to a young boy she doesn't know; Che is an eight year old boy who has only known the suffocating care of being brought up by an elderly grandmother, like "some kind of lovely insect". The strength of the mother-son relationship is developed beautifully as the story progresses, alongside an insightful comparison of wealthy American arrogance and privilege, fighting the hippies and revolutionaries that despise everything that this stands for. The story of the abduction of Che, the son of two American revolutionaries, is the story of the traumatic post sixties era that made the hippy generation enemies of the establishment and of the Nixon administration, but it is also the story of an eight year-old's need for attachment and love over stability.
The background of the US protest movements of the 60s and 70s was a new one for me; I found the raw political fanaticism of the characters fascinating and got a real feeling of an era of American history that changed a generation. Although at first I was irritated by the lack of direction and the apparent aimlessness of the plot, I came to realise that this was the frustration of Che, as he was dragged around from one place to another, without the real reason for his flight ever being explained. Part of Carey's skill is his beautiful prose and also his ability to portray the feelings of the protagonists through his writing. Throughout the book, he uses minimal information and a jagged narrative style that gives the reader the same sense of confusion that the boy has. He uses a stream of consciousness sentences in short chapters, that portray Che's bewilderment, his mixed emotions, and a life that has descended into uncertainty and chaos.
It was only after I finished this book that I realised just how much I had enjoyed it. Carey has the ability to make the reader live the emotions of the characters, and I found myself as bound up in the future of the boy as I was in the future of the mother. Peter Carey's style is often uncompromising and his characters prickly and unsympathetic, but this only adds to the enjoyment of the book, and the sense of surprise at the end, when you find that you really do care what happens to the characters after all.
Peter Carey is an Australian novelist and 'His Illegal Self' is his tenth novel. He is one of only two writers to have won the Booker Prize twice.
His Illegal Self was published in 2008 by Faber and Faber. 271 pages, ISBN 9780571231546