- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

Australian novelist Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice. His first was in 1988 for “Oscar and Lucinda,” the story of a waywardpreacher’s son and a free-

spirited heiress who meet and fall in love on shipboard while keeping their mutual fondness for gambling at bay. (It was made into a well-received movie of the same name.)

His second Booker came in 2001 for “True History of the Kelly Gang,” a novel that follows the true life of Ned Kelly, the 19th-century bushranger whose escapades made him an Australian folk hero, this despite (or because of) a wild life ducking the law until it caught up with him.

One could make the case that with “His Illegal Self,” Peter Carey is shooting for his third Booker (now called Man Booker) Prize. All the dark, dynamic elements of the former prizewinners are here. There is at the book’s center the beautiful Dial and seven-year-old Che, who are drawn into a maelstrom of circumstance and bad judgment that takes them from America to life in Queensland’s jungle at the margins of the law.

The book opens in 1972. Che is living with his grandmother Phoebe Selkirk, a patrician whose home is on the Upper East Side. She calls him Jay, refusing to address him by the name chosen by her hippie daughter. She keeps a tight reign on the boy, refusing to let him watch TV, and it is clear she has set goals for him that conform to his privileged birth. Her plan is to “bring him up Victorian,” and for a time things move along just fine. There is little evidence that other and estranged family members in their lives.

“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 here tan. And that was her also, with black hair, not even a sister to the blonde girl, although maybe they shared a kind of bright attention.”

Che had not seen his mother since he was two. “Then, when the boy was almost eight, a woman stepped out of the elevator into the apartment … and he recognized her straightaway. No one had told him to expect it.”

Then, also suddenly, the narrative shifts and the story is told through the eyes of one very surprised and delighted boy. He avers, “You were expected to know thing through your feelers, by the kaleidoscope patterns in the others’ eyes. No one would dream of saying, here is your mother returned to you. Instead his grandma told him to put on his sweater. She collected her purse, found her keys and then all three of them walked down to Bloomingdales as if it were a deli.”

Unfortunately for Che, he is working on a gross misapprehension. The woman who he meets that day is not his mother.

The depth of feeling in the novel’s early pages is profound. There are few narratives told from the point of view of a child that manage the passion or pathos of Che. However, as the story bolts from New York to Philadelphia, then Seattle and Australia, what began as a truly wrenching portrait of a disingenuous child understandably confused turns to something darker and, ultimately, implausible.

It simply doesn’t make sense that a prosperous young woman with a promising career with a teaching job at Vassar would suddenly agree to take care of a schoolmate’s young son. The way in which they flee the country is even more implausible, and suggestions that their passage was smoothed by an underground political movement simply does not work. Moreover, the book is populated by a motley group of tortured souls who do little to create sympathy for their plight in a hippie “haven” turned to waste.

Che and Dial form a bond, and there is much to suggest that it is substantial, if curiously one-sided. By the end of the book, readers know how Che feels about Dial, but we know less about her feelings for the boy.

So, in the end, only Che gives the book its sympathy and while it is substantial, it is simply not enough to carry what is ultimately a sad, dark tale with too much irredeemable suffering. It is not likely that this book will earn Mr. Carey a prize.

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