Peter Carey’s fictions are like a powerful old-fashioned car driven with the modernist hand-brake on — revved-up narrative that stutters, stalls, leaps in unexpected spasms.
With a less good writer this would be intensely annoying. Carey runs through many of the tricks of post-modernism — the tricksy shifts, the dislocations of chronology and viewpoint, the refusal to allow the reader the common courtesy of speech-marks, which might make it altogether too easy to know what is going on — yet, time after brilliant time, he carries it off (sometimes better than others; but this is one of his best). His tricks move beyond mere trickiness.
This is not just because his novels are often ‘about’ trickery — about illywhackers, con-men, art-fakers, fraudsters. In the hands of a less full-blooded novelist that would merely add a thin layer of stale post-modern self-reference. Carey engages because he is engaged: as a creator, he is never paring his fingernails, but has, like the boy in this viscerally gripping novel, ‘earth packed in black moons’ beneath them. He wrestles with real questions of authenticity and Australian identity; while his prose bursts with such authentic colloquial energy that it is like the rough drive over a fallen tree described in this novel: ‘Branches banged and broke beneath the tires and you could feel them spring up like busted bones or spikes and scrape beneath your bare feet on the floor.’
In His Illegal Self, Carey has channelled all of his quirks into an extraordinarily powerful fiction. The hero of the novel is seven years old, brave, needy, resilient and fragile, flung into extremes and out of his depth. He, like the reader, is struggling to make sense of a world that comes at him in dislocated gobbets of intense sensory experience, in which the voices of adults swirl above his head.