His Illegal Self, By Peter Carey

Peter Carey's latest fits neatly into the child-and-reluctant-guardian-flee-from-peril genre
Click to follow

It is a truism that the best novels stem in some way from personal experience. Peter Carey, born in the wonderfully named Bacchus Marsh in Australia, now resident in New York, has come up with a curious imaginative inversion of his own biography in his new novel, which takes its characters on a life-altering journey from Manhattan to a commune in tropical Queensland.

The narrative opens in the Upper East Side of New York, with the meeting of a boy, "almost eight", and a woman whom he wrongly assumes to be his mother. Until now, he has been brought up by his wealthy grandmother, his mother and father, who are socialist radicals, having "gone underground".

The young woman is really Anna Xenos, a former employee of the family who has been persuaded to act as a go-between, delivering the boy on a visit to his mother, whose location is a tightly kept secret. On the day of the arranged meeting, the mother is killed as she participates in a terrorist action that goes wrong.

Anna, now implicated in this event, and already accused of kidnapping for her delayed return to Manhattan, is assisted by the dead mother's underground organisation to flee. She takes the boy with her. They cross the country in search of his father, who is also wanted by the police, then go to Australia, where they eventually find refuge in an "off the grid" alternative community, beyond the reach of electricity, running water and (she hopes) the police.

Why she takes the boy (who is known as Jay or Che, depending on whom he is with) is never made entirely clear, nor is her decision to flee made quite plausible. This is partly down to the narrative style of the book, which alternates between the perspectives of Jay/Che and Anna. While some scenes are narrated by both of them, interestingly illuminating their divergent perspectives on the same events, others are left only to the boy, who for much of this book doesn't really understand what is happening to him or why. The reader, on occasion, is liable to feel the same way.

While this feels problematic in the first half of the novel, which has an almost thriller-ish forward pulse to it, in the child-and-reluctant-guardian-flee-from-peril sub-genre, in the second half of the novel, where Anna and Jay come to terms with their new life, we are far closer to Carey's natural territory, and it is here that the novel comes together.

With our protagonists no longer on the run, it finally becomes apparent what this novel is really about. It is a love letter to nature, and to the Australian wilderness in particular. Through the characters of this boy and woman, both cosseted urbanites who find themselves forced to live against their will in a tough, back-to-the-soil community, both of whom slowly and reluctantly come to terms with their changed circumstances, Carey pays moving homage to the kind of "hippy" lifestyle that is more commonly given comic or dismissive treatment.

For much of the book, the boy is unsure whether the woman who is looking after him, and who slowly grows to love him, is his real mother. This question seems to work as a metaphor for the main concern of the novel, which posits that we are nurtured and created as much by our surroundings as by our parents – and many of us, in the course of our lives, choose whether we want to be mothered by the city or the wilderness. Carey presents a convincing case that we would be better off with the latter. How long, I wonder, before he moves back to Bacchus Marsh?