Monday, February 18, 2008

Peter Carey Random House $55

Peter Carey is a remarkable writer. He is regarded by most, including me, to be Australia’s most outstanding contemporary writer. For my money the only other writer who gets close to him is Tim Winton but Winton is 17 years his junior and is not a double Booker Prize winner.

In addition to winning the Booker Prize twice, in 1988 for Oscar & Lucinda, and then again in 2001 for The True History of the Kelly Gang, (He is one of only two writers, the other being J. M. Coetzee, to have won the Booker Prize twice).
he has also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize twice, the Victorian Premier’s Award, and the NSW Premier’s Award and has been shortlisted for every other Australian literary prize. Pretty bloody impressive really.
Born in the state of Victoria he moved to New York in 1990 with his wife, Alison Summers, a theatre director, and his son, to teach creative writing at University of New York.

He has been awarded three honorary degrees and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the Australian Academy of Humanities and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This new book is totally different to any of his previous nine novels. Set in the early 1970’s the principal character is an eight year old boy, Che Selkirk, who is the son of 1960’s American student radicals and who was left as a baby with the mother’s very rich mother, a New York Matron who refuses to call the boy Che and instead calls him Jay.
While his relationship with his grandmother is a loving one the boy always dreams that one day he will be reunited with his parents. One day a woman turns up to take him to see visit his mother at her safe house. Jay thinks this woman, Dial, is his mother. But in fact she is his former babysitter.

Things quickly go wrong, the mother blows herself up as she is making a bomb, and Dial in effect kidnaps the boy, they are instantly big news, and after fleeing first to Philadelphia and then to the West Coast of the US they eventually end up in a hippy community in a remote location in sub-tropical Queensland, Australia inland from the Sunshine Coast.
This is where much of the story takes place, a time when the narrator describes Queensland as “a police state run by men who never finished high school”. Carey did himself live in a community in Queensland for a period during the 70’s and he clearly knows a lot about the goings on of the hippy communities of that time.

This is not an easy read, his books never are, they are challenging and leave a lot to the reader’s imagination but as with all his work it is beautifully written, his characters, often not at all likeable, are wonderfully drawn, and in the end I was deeply satisfied by His Illegal Self.
Reviewed by Bookman Beattie on Radio NZ National Monday 18 February. You can hear my review by going to the Radio NZ National website. I'm not sure how long the review will be left there but it will be at least until romorrow I guess.

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