Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
The Illegal, Lawrence Hill’s most recent novel, is an incredibly timely work of fiction. It tells the story of an illegal immigrant struggling to survive in a country that does not want him, and is a book that emerges at a time when the world is dealing with the largest refugee crisis in decades. Not only an engaging novel, The Illegal is also a fresh perspective on an issue that has for months dominated the news.
The story follows Keita Ali, a young runner who has made it out of his dangerous homeland but now finds himself constantly running from the authorities in a country where he is considered an illegal person. As a marathoner, Keita races to win prize money, but his successes draw attention from all sides.
Following Keita as he struggles to survive undetected by the authorities, the story delves into larger issues, such as corruption within the government that infringes on basic rights and freedoms of parts of the population. The novel follows two reporters who investigate these issues, and who also become entwined in Keita’s story.
Set mostly in the near future in a fictional country, The Illegal explores timely, political issues without overtly situating itself in the current political climate. Its lack of rootedness in today’s world allows it to stand as part metaphor, part possibility.
Keita, as a long-distance runner, serves as a strong symbol of refugeehood because he is always on the move. The focus on athletics and the constant movement of running gives Keita’s incessant search for safety a kind of urgency and anxiety.
Hill’s writing is graceful and crisp, and the 400-page novel reads fairly quickly. The story is engrossing, though the characters do often fall into clear-cut categories of good and bad, which can sometimes make them appear slightly one-dimensional. Along the same lines, the ending feels too neat, perhaps almost boarding on formulaic—everything ties up nice and tidy when the antagonists get caught and the rest of the characters are free to live happily. The opportunity for greater nuance is often presented in the novel, but not always followed through.
However, despite this, The Illegal is powerful because of the way it relates to the current state of the world.
2015 saw a mass exodus of people leaving parts of the Middle East and entering Europe; the world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. For months now, the news has been filled with stories of people making dangerous journeys to safety and the subsequent effects of their presence on the communities they arrive in.
The Illegal touches on many of the aspects of the refugee crisis that fill the news, even down to the dangerous sea crossings that many people take to get to safety. By following the story of one man and taking a human perspective on the issue of refugeehood, this novel brings a massive social and political issue down to the molecular, individual level. It is effective in getting us to pay attention to stories that are easily overlooked.
Sometimes we need fiction to help us make sense of the world. The Illegal gives us the opportunity to understand refugeehood in ways that we otherwise might not consider. It is a novel that delves into the political, but more importantly, it is a story that is poignant and personal. It’s a reminder that the stories in our world are personal, too.
The Illegal was published in 2015 by HarperCollins.