After the success of The Book of Negroes I wondered whether Lawrence Hill's novel would disappoint. So first I went to hear him speak about it - and was very intrigued by the excerpt he read so decided to take the chance. And I was not disappointed at all. Though not as powerful as the prior novel, this book is still very well written, interesting and, in particular, introduces some very intriguing characters.
The protagonist is Keita, a boy born on the fictional island of Zantoroland. The poor island is known for its autocratic government and its marathon runners. As a boy, Keita doesn't do well in school (unlike his sister Charity) so runs and dreams of getting to the Olympics one day. However, after Charity heads to Harvard for university and a bloody coup which has tragic results for both his parents, Keita is not sure that will happen. That is until he is taken under the wing of a rather corrupt coach who takes him out of the country to run. He first fails in the Boston marathon, where he also fails to make contact with Charity, and then is taken to the fictional, Freedom State.
Freedom State, in contrast to Zantoroland, is one of the wealthiest nations on earth. However, it has a very strict anti-refugee policy and apartheid like policies against its black residents (very broadly defined), many of whom live in the slum AfricTown on the outskirts of the capital. In Freedom State Keita escapes his corrupt manager and moves underground to try to win races and use the winnings to figure out what has happened to his sister.
Though he encounters many corrupt people in Freedom State - like the "madam", Lulu DiStefano, who owns most of the shanty housing in AfricTown and the President himself, others are far more sympathetic and realize Keita could become a contributing member of the country if given the chance.
My favourite was the elderly Ivernia Beech. She is fighting her own battles against her son who wants to declare her incompetent so he can gain control of her significant assets. But Ivernia is far from incompetent and uses her wits not only to protect her freedom, but to assist Keita's efforts in obtaining his own. I also liked John, the gifted young boy from AfricTown who attends the most prestigious school in the country on scholarship. As part of a prize for an award winning essay, he is given the freedom to film a documentary about life in Freedom State, and particularly in AfricTown. Under the guise of filming the documentary he gains access to many places including Lulu's brothel and the office of the Minister of Citizenship where he helps uncover some of the corruption in Freedom Town's government. He is assisted by Viola Hill, a wheelchair bound journalist who is trying desperately to escape her past in AfricTown and her job covering only sporting events. With John's help she gets her break unearthing and reporting on corruption. Keita's final supporter is a female member of Freedom Town's police force who, while running a race against him, develops a romantic interest in him and manages to protect him from more zealous members of the police force.
At times the book reads like a mystery as we work with the characters to unravel the complex corruption scheme. But it is also serves as a good hard look at how unfair a strict refugee policy can be - in some ways Hill was just lucky that worldwide refugee policies became good news right around when his book was published. Whether you see the book only as a good thriller or as a larger political statement, you will love the characters and will want to keep reading to figure out how they eventually fare.