The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

4/5 stars.
Read from February 09 to 17, 2016.
ebook, 335 pages.

I judged this book by its cover initially and wasn’t overly keen to read it but as soon as I found out that large portion of the book was about running, my attitude quickly changed.

I’m actually speeding along quite well through the Canada Reads this year! To be fair, the novels have been really good so far and I’ve also had the time. My schedule has changed substantially now though but the goal is to continue with this pace.

Keita Ali is the son of a prominent journalist who lives in the war torn and impoverished nation of Zantoroland. While he dreams of becoming a famous marathon runner, his sister Charity dreams of higher education and being more like their father. Charity is eventually accepted into Harvard and while Keita is getting offers to become an elite runner he cannot leave their father, especially not after their corrupt government has tortured him leaving him cripple and frail. Tensions in the country are escalating and Keita knows that if they don’t leave the country soon, they will perish. When his father is captured again, Keita heeds his father’s advice and agrees to leave the country with an running agent named Anton, who can get Keita into the country of Freedom State. Unfortunately, Anton is a scam artist with an anger management issue so Keita quickly decides he must part ways with this man as soon as possible. Freedom State is not kind to illegal immigrants, especially those from Zantoroland due to their extensive histories, but Keita seems to have an impact on all of the people he meets, all of which, have their own troubles and stories but are going to play an essential part in Keita’s as well.

Shortly after arriving, Keita finds he cannot get a hold of his sister and that Anton is out for blood for abandoning him. He is running as many races as he can to get money to get by but he is plagued by a mysterious medical issue and he is finding it harder and harder to keep a low profile. Keita knows that he can be deported at any time, which would certainly mean death for him. Through Keita’s journey you’re taken through the most impoverished part of Freedom State, called AfriTown, where all the illegals are living out of storage containers with no amenities. As more people learn of Keita’s successes, he inadvertently gets the attention of the Freedom State government, which has its own state of corruption. While the people that Keita meets are hoping to create change within Freedom State, Keita must struggle and run for his life, as well as that of his sister’s.

While the countries of Freedom State and Zantoroland are completely made up, it’s clear that they reflect real places with similar issues. This novel discusses some of the most pressing issues facing the world right now with the movement of refugees from the middle east and the political struggles it’s causing.

As a runner, there was a massive appeal for me with this book, as I could relate to all of the racing details that author included as well as Keita’s love for the sport. Even with that, the plot work is impressive and that was what kept me from putting this book down. Each character that Keita meets gets to narrate a small portion of their own story and the author did an amazing job of interweaving all of the character’s plots together. The book is seamless and the characters are quick to draw you in.

The book is also a great feel-good read as the characters, that you quickly become heavily invested in, all get redemption in the end. Sadly, that is not the case for many real-life refugees of today. This novel is a real eye-opener for those that don’t understand the issues facing some of today’s refugees and the importance of human-kindness and open doors during such trying times.

This was a phenomenal read and is currently at the top of my list for this year’s Canada Reads. This book is the epitome of starting over. New country, no family and suffering that many cannot not even fathom, yet coming out against all odds all because of kindness.  I would recommend this book to anyone. While the book may be fictional, the suffering, corruption and struggles that the refugees of today face, is not. Hill has written a potent, inciting and exciting read that is extremely relevant and morally thought provoking.

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

3/5 stars.
Read from January 30 to February 05, 2016.
ebook, 186 pages.

I know I’m writing this review a bit out of order as I have some books that I’ve read before this one that still need to be reviewed but I thought I should get the reviews done for the Canada Reads 2016 shortlist as soon as possible. That way I can try to have as many done as possible before the debate and final selection in March.

Admittedly, I picked up Birdie first as it is the shortest out of the 5 novels in this years shortlist. I knew nothing about the book or the author. I found out that this is Tracey Lindberg’s debut novel and that she is the first Aboriginal woman in Canada to complete her graduate law degree at Harvard. She also teaches Indigenous Law at two Universities in Canada.

Birdie, it’s the name her mother use to call her and name she associates with better days. Bernice is a young Cree woman, who has left her home in Northern Alberta to pursue a childish obsession to meet Pat Johns, who played Jesse on The Beachcombers. She has also left to discover the strange meaning of the dreams that she has been having that revolve around a popular cooking show. After finding work in a bakery in a small town in BC, this sort of vision quest that Bernice is partaking in comes with results that she does not expect as she revisits much of her very tragic and scarring past. When she falls into a catatonic state, either from mental illness or due to a vision quest, the supportive women of her past come to help her. From sexual abuse, her mother’s disappearance, to her time spent in a psychiatric ward and living on the streets, Bernice must overcome her past in order to start again.

The scenarios depicted in Birdie, sadly, are a reality for so many aboriginal women in Canada. Like Bernice’s mother, in the last 3 decades over 1,200 indigenous women have been reported missing or were murdered, and it’s an epidemic that’s been largely brushed under the rug. The reports of sexual abuse and violence in Aboriginal communities against children and women is also shocking, many of which go unreported and continue to perpetuate the cycle of abuse into the next generation.

No one ever talked about a lot of things. What happened to Freda’s mom. Why Freda lived with everyone at one time or another. Why Maggie stopped talking to anyone. When the electricity would come back on. Why no one stayed with the uncles. The silence about what was happening around them seeped into the kitchen, first. Permeating the curtains. Eating into the linoleum. Eventually settling in the fridge. It was like some sort of bad medicine – it made Freda skinny, Bernice fat, and Maggie disappear.”

 

Besides the huge statement that Lindberg is making in telling the story Bernice and making more people aware of the problems still facing Aboriginal women, Birdie is beautifully written and highly poetic. Each chapter begins with a Cree words and a poem that depicts the dreams that Bernice is having. You are taken through her past in a similar dream-like fashion. However, this dream sequence style of writing lead a bit of confusion for me as a reader, as the plot line wasn’t linear. I was riveted with the first and last portions of the book but there was a small portion in the middle that lost me when I wasn’t able to sequence the events together. I also, some how managed to miss that Bernice was having a sort of vision quest and that the dreams she was having were going to add up to something at the end. Could be my bad as a reader, but it could also be the fault of the writer. Regardless, I found myself thinking about Bernice and her character days after reading this book, so Lindberg’s character work is impeccable.

The end of the novel is a massive reflection of starting over, making this book a very good contender for winning Canada Reads this year. This book is also a great recommendation for anyone who has or knows someone with mental illness as Bernice struggles with her own demons. There are some moderately graphic depictions of abuse in the novel however, so it may be challenging for those who can sadly relate to that. However, the ending more than makes up for it as Bernice learns to overcome her past.


 

Sources:

http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/cj-jp/victim/rd3-rr3/p3.html

http://constellation.uqac.ca/3232/1/Pimatisiwin%20CollinDionTrocme-2.pdf