Lawrence Hill has been on my radar (well, everyone’s radar) since The Book of Negroes. I wasn’t surprised to see his name on the Canada Reads short list for this year, and actually pretty glad; while he’s on my to-read list, he’s not on my immediate to-read list, which means who knows when I would have gotten around to picking up his work. Canada Reads to the rescue!
Synopsis: Keita escapes the cruel dictatorship of his homeland (the fictional Zantoroland) to make a better life for himself in a new land (the fictional Freedomstate), by doing what he loves best – running marathons. But even in a new country, theoretically full of possibility and opportunity, he must fight: to ransom his kidnapped sister, to avoid the authorities who would deport him as “an illegal”, and to find happiness when the state seems bent on denying him even the basic rights of personhood.
For some reason I had the impression that this was going to be highbrow literary fiction, dense and knotted; I was extremely happy (and you will be extremely happy) to discover this was not the case. I devoured the first hundred pages in a single sitting, when I’d only meant to read the first chapter. These characters are so open and welcoming that it’s easy to step into their lives and their minds and their troubles.
But while I found the first section of the novel to be completely engaging, it seemed to get choppier and choppier as it progressed. It has a good heart, sharp start, and muddled finish – like most marathons, I imagine.
There are some aspects that really don’t work: Hill keeps piling on the obstacles and tangling up the stakes, unaided by the fact that he keeps introducing more characters. When the time comes to wrap everything up, he defies all odds to tie every last loose end into the same pretty bow. At best, it’s unnecessary; at worst, it’s unrealistic. Adding to this artificial feeling is the fact that the lines between the good guys and the bad guys are always crystal clear. Frankly, everything closes too neatly – and too happily – to feel real.
But the core of the novel remains intriguing. Hill. has a lot to say – and imply – and illuminate – when it comes to discussing questions of race, citizenship, kindness, socio-economic disparity. Keita escapes a terrifying and violent dictatorship, only to be introduced to new kinds of terror and violence in a supposedly rational and compassionate country. Hill draws chilling similarities between his fictional countries and real life – similarities we are meant to see, and think about.
And while I understand why Hill invented countries for the purpose of this book, I can’t help but think that he declawed the novel a little. By fictionalising the setting, it suggests that the contents are also, to some extent, fictionalised – which takes away from the power of the novel’s message.
All in all, this novel has a lot of heart – it’s meaty and passionate, honest and conversational. All the same, I closed the book a little dissatisfied – thinking that there were maybe some places where other organs could have come in handy, too.