Book review: The Illegal

illegalKeita is an elite athlete from the tiny, fictional country of Zantroland, who finds himself on the island of Freedom State, running for his life.

Viola Hill, a black lesbian who relies on a wheelchair to get around, is hot on the story.

For someone like me, this book has it all: running, journalism, political corruption!

The story takes places within an overarching theme of power and race, black versus white, good versus evil. In this story, knowledge is power, and young, up-and-coming journalists hold the key.

It was the perfect read for kicking back on my vacation, which happened to coincide with the Olympics in Rio.

I am a fan of Canadian author Lawrence Hill, having read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, which tells the incredible journey of a female slave from the shores of Africa to Nova Scotia and beyond.

Reading his acknowledgements, I can tell Hill put immense effort into this story, writing it over the course of five years. He consulted with health experts, refugee experts and Canadian Olympic runner Reid Coolsaet. He spoke to athletes about what it’s like to compete in a wheelchair, which informed his writing of Viola Hill.

Among his other acknowledgments, Hill thanks my alma mater, Wilfrid Laurier University, for allowing him to write in Lucinda House, and he also thanks friends including sports journalist Stephen Brunt for convincing him to buy a place in Woody Point, Newfoundland, near Gros Morne National Park, where he finished this book. I love the Canadian-ness of this book and its roots.

While I enjoyed the story — hanging on every mile of Keita’s races — I also felt as though the novel wasn’t the calibre we might expect from this author.

A few things stick out at me, most notably an unbelievable love interest between Keita and a cop, who apparently only thinks about sex — and by the way, they go on a date at Tim Hortons (what?!). In general, many of the story elements seem to weave together a little too conveniently. It’s almost as if Hill was trying to condense too much into one story.

All that aside, the book certainly opens your eyes to the dangers that could be faced by athletes from around the world.

It’s common for Kenyan runners to move to Canada, seeking prize money to send back home to their families, according to The Globe and Mail. They must balance elite training with full-time jobs. Many find the life too difficult.

Every day I run without fear, and I do it for fun. For so many, running is a way to make a living, and it must be done while facing extreme circumstances.

I think it’s important to realize that running is about more than leisure, weight control and self-empowerment.

I loved reading about a runner who must dig deep to find the courage, strength and stamina to win.