I have been struggling to find the right words to describe this book and have come up with several. In my first draft I called it a ‘curious’ novel but that leaves the impression that there is something oddball about it without doing justice to the fact that it is quite ingenious. However, if I say it is ‘ingenious’ without qualification that somehow implies that is a work of ‘genius’ and would make it sound inaccessible which is simply untrue. I’ll settle for the phrase: ‘highly imaginative’. Lawrence Hill has created two imaginary island countries almost in the style of a work of science fiction wherein a writer constructs new and yet undiscovered civilisations on far off planets. I tried to imagine how I might create a similar, plausible, far off imaginary country but given the way information is disseminated today through global and social media I had to conclude it is extremely difficult to put together something that would allow the reader to suspend belief; at least long enough to tell a story. In the 19th century it may have been easier to invent a country to serve the cause of fiction. Ruritania, for example, was meant to be a kingdom situated vaguely in Eastern Europe. The reader may have been in on the joke, (or not), but would have been given enough description to imagine a world of storybook castles and gallants in military uniforms loaded down with braid and brass. There would not have been a Wiki something or other to debunk the imaginary location. The author would only have been obliged to make the fictional country a probable entity; enough to allow the reader to set the imagination free.
In Lawrence Hill’s story the island called Freedom State is large and prosperous in contrast to the second island called Zantoroland that is small and very poor. He situated these islands on the edge of the Ortiz Sea (also imaginary) vaguely part of the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. The author has also provided a map just before his prologue to help the reader envision these two countries. We are told Freedom State exploited the labour of the inhabitants of Zantoroland for hundreds of years and is going though a period of xenophobia. The political party in power in Freedom State has been elected to office on the promise of getting rid of undocumented migrants from Zantoroland who shelter in the country’s shantytowns.
The newly elected government of Freedom State has promised its citizens it will block migrants from Zantoroland from reaching its shore and is secretly paying the corrupt officials of the Zantoroland government a premium for accepting back the boats of illegals they have turned away. In other words the corrupt authorities on the smaller island are profiting from the misery and desperation of its own people.
The novel’s principal character is Keita, a talented young athlete dreaming of making it to the Olympics. He lives in the poorer nation of Zantoroland. His father is a freelance journalist working to expose the corrupt, violent and oppressive practices of the government that has no respect for human rights on even the most basic level. The seditious activity of Keita’s father results in the destruction of his family. To survive Keita indentures himself to a shady-dealing individual who manages athletic talent solely for profit.
In addition to Keita, Lawrence Hill introduces a collection of colourful characters, some likeable and some not. I often found the secondary characters more interesting than Kieta. For example there is the little old lady who is essentially a subversive element in a humourous way, creating fake ID cards for migrants without papers so they can use the library where she volunteers. Then there is the journalist in a wheelchair who can manoeuvre her way through any riotous situation with the tactical acumen of a guerrilla warrior. Keita’s feisty girlfriend who is struggling to succeed in a male dominated profession also intrigued me. Here lies something of a problem for me in that while I was interested in following the trials and tribulations of Keita at the same time I wanted to know more about the lives of these characters and others such as that of Keita’s dissident father and the mysterious Madame who at one time sheltered Keita in her well run brothel. I think it is distracting from the narrative when the principal character is somewhat boring compared to the supporting cast… (then again that cautionary quote comes to mind: “…comparisons are odious.”) .
I think my scruples may have been ruffled as I read this book because so much of the pain and wretchedness described had a feeling of being generic. The boat people in this book are as hopeful and as badly treated as those we hear about on the news, crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy and Greece. Being Canadian, like Lawrence Hill, (who was born in Nova Scotia but spends his summers on my island of Newfoundland), I have a feeling of ‘ that sort of ‘drama’ is somewhere else; faraway from Canada.’ His imaginary islands affirmed this because it all seemed quite plausible; something associated with East Africa and vague enough to allow the author to make up the story without me, the reader being bothered by the accuracy of the geography.
I am old enough to remember the Biafran/ Nigerian civil war of the late sixties and of seeing the newspaper pictures of starving children and vendors selling rats in the markets as protein. Mothers in Canada would say to their little ones “Don’t waste the food on your plate remember the poor starving children in Biafra,” as if the full tummies of their own child would compensate for the empty ones of the Biafran children. At some point I realized how deep my ignorance ran in so far as what I knew about Biafra and its geography. I knew not whether Biafra was north, south or in the interior of the African continent and I callously grouped all similar human suffering as being ‘over there’. So I asked myself, when I read this book if I do the same thing today in the contemporary setting when I read about the illegal migration moving into South Africa, the US, Western Europe and Australia.
It is a very good thing that a book should raise such reflections on the human condition with those of us who enjoy the privilege of peaceful, quiet, and sedentary living simply by virtue of where we happen to have been born. This is a well-told story that has a lovely fluency of language making it a quick read. I was impressed by the way the author can enter the heads of his characters and with a few deft strokes outline their personalities and place them logically in the narrative. This would be a very good book to use as a reference by someone trying to learn how to write a novel.