His Illegal Self

Publisher: Vintage Canada
Two-time Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self crackles with passionate, electrifying prose and characters that leap off the page and into your psyche. Utterly captivating.

It is 1972 and Ché, a precocious seven-almost-eight-year-old boy, leads a rather bourgeois life on Park Avenue with his eccentric grandmother. His parents are young radicals in hiding from the FBI – he has never even met his father and he last saw his mother at the age of two. Ché is ecstatic when a woman called Dial – who he believes is his mother – appears at his front door to take him out for lunch. They skip the meal and Dial whisks Ché off on a serpentine adventure, luring him with the promise of a big “surprise” and the idea that he has finally found someone to love. Eventually they find themselves stranded on a turbulent hippie commune in Australia, a lonely boy and a reluctant kidnapper with no one to rely on but each other.

His Illegal Self is a love story like no other. Simultaneously sinister and endearing, the incomparable perspectives and vividness of the characters’ voices are mesmerizing. It is impossible not to be moved by the openness and innocence of this young boy, and by his willingness and inherent need to love and to trust anyone and everyone as he seeks out his parents.


Chapter 1

There were no photographs of the boy's father in the house upstate. He had been persona non grata since Christmas 1964, six months before the boy was born. There were plenty of pictures of his mom. There she was with short blond hair, her eyes so white against her tan. And that was her also, with black...
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1. Peter Carey is frequently drawn to writing about outlaws and outcasts. Why do you think this is? Why do we like to read about such characters?

2. What do you think Che's personal and social values are? How has his life been shaped by the lives of his parents, even though he has not been raised by them?


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"Peter Carey is one of the great writers in English now. His Illegal Self is further proof, a book in which he's created a little boy who is neither too precious nor too wise, a little boy on a sad hard trip with his eyes wide open, watching everything and everyone around him. He makes you think of your own past life and all you felt when you were a kid being played upon and moved about by the adults of the world. This book is another triumph, among Carey's other wonderful books. The man can write. He seems capable of anything."
—Kent Haruf, author of Plainsongh and Eventide

"His Illegal Self by Peter Carey has the pace of a thriller but is beautifully styled. It is the late 1960s and Che is seven years old, dreaming of his radical activist parents coming back for him. A woman arrives in the New York home he shares with his grandmother and steals him away. He is willing to accept the adventure until it becomes apparent that things are not as they seem. With the action shifting to a commune in the Australian outback, Carey’s style is fantastically lively, making this a gorgeous as well as riveting read."
—Ruth Atkins, Booksellers’ Choice: February

"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. [...] Carey's mastery of tone and command of point of view are very much in evidence in his latest novel which is less concerned with period-piece politics than with the essence of identity."
Kirkus ( Starred Review)

"Two-time Booker Prize winner Carey has a thing for outlaws, whether he's writing about the famous folk hero Ned Kelly or schemers involved in a literary hoax or art crime. He also has a gift for bringing to creepy-crawly and blistering life Australia's jungle and desert wilds. His latest spectacularly involving and supremely well made novel of life on the edge begins in New York as Che, a boy of seven living with his rich, no-nonsense grandmother, takes off with a woman festooned with beads and bells. [...] For every lurch forward, Carey throws this psychologically astute and diabolically suspenseful novel in reverse to reveal the truth about Dial and her love for the boy. Carey's unique take on the conflict between the need to belong and the dream of freedom during the days of rage over the Vietnam War is at once terrifying and mythic."
—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Odd, syncopated, beautiful and emotionally compelling novel about the child of 60's radicals on the run ... fascinating and deeply compelling evocation of late 60's, early 70's period details in speech, atmosphere and irrational behavior, but at its core His Illegal Self is an ancient and magnificently eerie fairy tale about a child, wise beyond his years, stolen away to the forest, undergoing every kind of mortal trail, and surviving, in a surprising tale of luminous grace."
O Magazine