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HIS ILLEGAL SELF by Peter Carey Kirkus Star


by Peter Carey

Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-307-26372-8
Publisher: Knopf

This isn’t the first fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it may well be the best.

What freshens the familiar material is the child’s-eye perspective with which Carey begins the story. Impressions and chronology take time to coalesce, as seven-year-old Che (called “Jay” by the patrician grandmother who has raised him) has little idea what is happening to him or why. Take the title as irony, because Che is the embodiment of innocence, with his only possible guilt by association. Most of what Che knows about his parents he has learned from his babysitter, who has promised him that he will be liberated: “They will break you out, man. Your life will start for real.” Both his mother and his father, neither of whom he knows, are notorious underground militants, and Che himself has some sort of fame from a photo taken of him as a baby with his mother at a demonstration. One afternoon, the babysitter’s prophecy appears to come true, as a woman whom Che believes to be his mother visits and flees with him. Whatever the relation between the two, a bond develops between Che and the captor/rescuer he has been told to call “Dial.” As the novel’s perspective shifts between the two characters, it appears that Dial has little more idea than Che what is going on. She has risked her career as a fledgling professor at Vassar to take the boy, and whatever relation she has with him, she has a history with the boy’s father. The action quickly shifts from New York—where Che’s grandmother lives, as does the novelist—to Australia, where Carey was born and raised and where revelation awaits for both the characters and the reader.

Carey’s mastery of tone and command of point of view are very much in evidence in his latest novel (My Life as a Fake, 2004, etc.), which is less concerned with period-piece politics than with the essence of identity.