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Peter Carey: His Illegal Self

Che Selkirk, the seven year old hero of this novel, is the son of two radical Harvard graduates, Susan Selkirk and Dave Rubbo. As the two are on the run from the law, Che is brought up by his mother’s mother. She is old-fashioned and rich. She calls him Jay, does not let him watch television (so that he won’t see any references to his parents) and generally keeps him sheltered. When a woman, dressed as a hippie and called Dial (it turns out that it is nickname from the word dialectic; her real name is Anna Xenos) arrives, Che is convinced that it is his mother. She takes him for the day, with his grandmother’s permission, promising to lead him to a big surprise. However, Dial is not his mother and his mother blows herself up by mistake. Dial and Che are on the run. The radicals give them some money and they are off to Australia.

The pair end up in a hippie commune in Queensland and much of the story is their life there. Dial, who had a promising career as a lecturer at Vassar, does not fit in and nor does Che, who hates the place. They have an awkward relationship with Trevor, a petty criminal who, as a child, had been shipped to Australia from a Dr. Barnardo’s children home in London. Che keeps hoping that his father will come and rescue him but the closest he will have to a father is Trevor who is a dangerous character. The pair don’t fit in. That seems to be the point and it is not a very exciting point. Whether not understanding what wood to use to build a hut, how to deal with the code of the local hippies or the issue with Trevor, Dial, in particular, and Che are clearly misfits but somehow it doesn’t really work as the story lags with one problem after another and none of them very exciting. The pseudo-mother-son relationship between Dial and Che is mildly fascinating but only mildly, both for us and for Che. The Queensland landscape may be interesting but it does not make a novel.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Random