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The cover image for 'The Illegal,' by Lawrence Hill. Courtesy of HarperCollins Canada

Refugee on the run

Lawrence Hill’s new novel about a displaced runner moves at a frenetic pace. Readers of 'The Illegal' might need to catch their breath.

By Julie McGonegal

Lawrence Hill has had a career-long obsession with the red stuff that courses through our veins: blood. Blood not so much as a function of biology, but as a barometer of belonging and citizenship.

His stunning novel The Book of Negroes, an award-winner adapted as a television miniseries, offered an unflinching look at the brutalities of transatlantic slavery — blood as the basis for human bondage. His CBC Massey Lectures explored the topic further. “As both substance and symbol,” he says, “blood reveals us, divides us and unites us.” Blood is also a theme in Hill’s other books. With his new novel, The Illegal, he turns his focus to blood and borders. Why do we vilify the blood of foreigners, often blocking their entry into our country? Why do some hurting bodies appeal to our sympathies, while others we quietly ignore, or worse, loudly denigrate?

The novel is a satiric send-up of those who turn their backs — and close their borders — to refugees on the run. And it feels uncomfortably close to our contemporary reality. While Canada’s new government is welcoming Syrian refugees in the thousands, signs of rising racial fear and distrust toward the growing numbers of displaced and dispossessed are rampant. Think of Hungary’s fence, of the electoral support for the National Front in France, of the Islamophobic rhetoric of Republican leadership contender Donald Trump in the United States, of the rise of the One Nation Party in Australia — or, lest we think Canada is above racism, of the torching of a mosque in Peterborough, Ont., last November, followed by a racially motivated attack on a Muslim woman in Toronto.

In a global landscape pocked by xenophobia, Hill’s fictional countries of Zantoroland, a wasteland of ethnic oppression, and Freedom State, an affluent, largely white country set on deporting the refugees in its midst, could be almost anywhere. His protagonist, Keita, could be almost anyone — any one of the nearly 60 million people that the United Nations reports are stateless and uprooted. What Hill gives us with Keita is a face to put to these faceless numbers, a way of recognizing the humanity behind statistics that stretch our imagination beyond capacity.

The novel opens in mid-action as Keita flees a murderous mob. He remains in perpetual flight as the narrative unfolds — running to escape torture, running to survive, running to pay ransom to keep his sister alive. When a coup d’état renders his homeland unlivable, Keita’s dreams of becoming an Olympic competitor lie in ruins. He is forced underground in Freedom State’s AfricTown, a shanty town of soul and struggle reminiscent of Cape Town’s District Six or Halifax’s Africville.

Once a refugee, Keita runs marathons not for glory or fame but to satiate the ruthless demands of a dictator. In Hill’s brilliant metaphor, running covers the symbolic distance between racial privilege and plight. But running also sets the pace of the narrative, which moves ahead at the same breakneck speed that Keita runs. In this page-turning political thriller, Keita finds himself entangled in a thickening plot of deceit and corruption.

Propelling the story forward is a colourful cast of supporting characters: Lula DiStefano, self-titled queen of AfricTown and owner of a brothel, who advocates for community improvement while committing sundry acts of evil; Ivernia Beech, an elderly progressive white woman desperate to maintain her autonomy in the face of a conniving son and well-meaning social workers; John Falconer, a brilliant, racially mixed teenager raising himself in AfricTown while filming a documentary on the township; and Viola Hill, a black disabled lesbian struggling to advance her journalism career.

Of these characters, Viola comes closest to voicing Hill’s position on illegal immigration: “As far as she was concerned, it was fair to accuse somebody of doing something illegal but not to say they were illegal.” In interviews, Hill has consistently debunked popular stereotypes that construct refugees as criminals and terrorists, resisting the dubious idea that the only genuine refugee is the one we don’t see. For him, the very idea of the illegal — the notion that people are illegitimate by virtue of their existence — is reprehensible. Describing Keita as “a stranger in a strange land whose only transgression was to exist in a place where his presence was illegal,” Hill suggests that the real transgressors are those practising exclusionary forms of citizenship. It is not the strangers within our gates that threaten our moral codes, but rather our own gated mentality. Fuller lives await us all, he implies, if we allow ourselves to be enriched by the lives of others.

If fault is to be found in this gripping tale, perhaps it lies in the frenetic pace of the prose. The brisk tempo resembles the urgent tones of the war correspondent — a nod at Hill’s earlier career as a newspaper reporter — and captures the desperation of the refugee’s flight. But light and speed occasionally come at the cost of depth and nuance. Missing is the poetic, meditative quality that marks Hill’s The Book of Negroes as well as such fictional treatments of the refugee experience as Kim Thúy’s Ru and Tasneem Jamal’s Where the Air is Sweet. Richly evocative passages like this are lamentably rare: “Home had a door and as it opened and Keita walked through it, he felt an ocean of tears welling inside him. So he walked back out and closed the door neatly behind him.”

Ultimately, The Illegal is more suspenseful thriller than contemplative narrative. Not lost in its momentum, though, is Hill’s invitation to imagine a world where blood is a symbol of unity rather than division. To accept his call would involve welcoming “the others” in our midst in a mutually affirming act of hospitality.

Julie McGonegal is a writer and editor in Barrie, Ont.

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