A Commonwealth Award–winning writer threatens to make readers of this breakneck thriller as out-of-breath as its long-distance–running hero.
African-Canadian novelist Hill (Someone Knows My Name, 2007, etc.) ramps up thematic urgency in this white-knuckler set three years in the future in two mythical countries, Zantoroland, a dystopian black nation (suggesting, but never specifying, an African locale), and Freedom State, which could stand for any relatively prosperous multicultural democracy seeking a clamp-down on its surge of illegal immigrants. Among the latter is Keita Ali, a gifted marathoner literally running for his life to the Freedom State from his native Zantoroland—where his father, a dissident journalist, was savagely murdered. Though he is, so to speak, freer to run road races in his new homeland, Keita doesn’t find much safety there as he competes under an assumed name (that of famed British miler Roger Bannister) and is exploited by a slimy track-and-field agent who, it turns out, is just one of many corrupt individuals of every color and social strata treating even legally documented immigrants with malign intent. Kidnapping, blackmail, murder, and looming scandal further complicate and eventually endanger Keita’s life; the only people he can trust include a comely policewoman he meets during a race, a plucky ninth-grade documentarian, an ambitious wheelchair-bound lesbian journalist, and a kindly old woman with keen survival instincts. Even with their respective quirks, these and other characters seem like stock types straight out of a made-for–TV thriller, as does the often chaotic plot. Yet Hill skillfully injects details throughout of the vicissitudes and travails faced by any person, no matter what color or ethnicity, struggling to escape from strife-ridden, life-threatening conditions in their own countries. Even the simple act of using a library computer carries ominous ramifications for any "illegal."
The settings may be imaginary, but the perils rendered here are as real as the front-page stories in this morning's newspaper about refugees desperate for safety in Western countries reluctant to welcome them.