Lawrence Hill’s writing career has revolved around the ideas of race, culture, and belonging. Again and again his characters run smack into the dilemma of finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. In The Illegal, it is a young marathon runner, Keita Ali, who finds himself in a dangerous situation and becomes a refugee. While Hilll sets his story in the fictional countries of Zantoroland and Freedom State, the issues of refugees is only too current in our time.
In a past career, Lawrence Hill was a journalist and worked for a time at the Winnipeg Free Press. In this novel Keita is the son of journalist and this profession sets their family on a perilous path. The sport of marathon running is the vehicle to get young Keita out of Zantoroland, which has become too dangerous for his family. While sport gets Keita out of the country, there is a cost as his passage is linked to a parasitic coach who is really no different from the “coyotes” or human traffickers who prey on illegal immigrants across the world. Hill explores the issues of extortion, greed, sport, and exile through the eyes of young Keita and the characters around him.
In Freedom State, young Keita continues to run–in competitive races to earn money and he is continually running from those who would betray him, abuse him, or deport him. Lawrence Hill has written a fast-paced novel populated by a big cast of corrupt politicians, hustling newspaper people, enterprising underworld figures, and daring immigrants. The story is accessible, real, and heart breaking.