Freely Indirect and Illegally Selfish

Patty Osborne

This spring, in the March 2008 issue of the New Yorker (which I picked up at the Denman Island Free Store), I came across one of the best book reviews I have ever read. In 2008, reviewer James Wood wrote of Peter Carey’s novel, His Illegal Self (Random House), that “the world bulges out of the sentences,” and the phrases that Wood gives as examples are inspiring in their sparse but brilliant descriptions. Wood goes on to analyze one of the strengths of Carey’s writing, something called “free Indirect style”—which Wood describes as “the bending of third-person narrative around the viewpoint of the character who is being described,” and Wood shows that this is essential to our viewing the world through the eyes of Carey’s main character, an eight-year-old boy. By this point, Wood’s piece was feeling less like a book review and more like an important lesson on how to write well, so when I got back to town I took Carey’s His Illegal Self out of the library and dove in. The novel moves at breakneck speed from the moment that an eight-year-old boy is scooped up from his grandmother’s care by his mother, who is in hiding because she is part of a radical protest group. The boy is sure that, just as he has imagined, his mother (whom he has not seen since he was two) is taking him to meet his father (whom he has never seen). Arrangements go awry and no explanations are given to the boy or to the reader as he and the woman (who may or may not be his mother and who does not seem to have a plan) travel to various US cities and end up in a foundering hippie commune in the Australian bush. We get brief respites from the boy’s uncertain and sometimes terrifying world when Carey doubles back on the story to fill in details that the boy does not know. This, plus a tiny bit of foreshadowing of the boy’s adult life, make this frenetic journey bearable enough to keep reading. Wood was right, this is a beautiful novel, and the writing is worth studying and emulating.

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