Lost and found

<strong>His Illegal Self </strong>

Peter Carey <em>Faber & Faber, 300pp, £16.99 </em>

In Peter Carey's seventh novel, Che, a delightfully grave, precocious seven-year-old, is whisked away from life with his rich, obstinately "Victorian" grandmother and into Neverland. Che's parents are famous activists, bank robbers in the name of socialism, at once completely alien to him and completely familiar through news clippings and his babysitter's distorted accounts of their exploits. One day his dream of being rescued by them and of taking his place by their side comes true - in a manner of speaking. It is 1971, and the setting swings from upstate New York to Manhattan ("You want me to call him Che in Bloomingdale's," his grandmother hisses when she feels reproached for having rechristened him "Jay") to a scramble across America, ending at a hippie commune in Queensland.

On the way they meet Trevor, an orphan grown into a man of taut, unsettling physicality, and his sidekick John the Rabbitoh, who makes a casual attempt to rape Che's mother. The Rabbitoh's later apology is on some levels more chilling than the attempted rape: "'I'm meant to be a Christian,' said the Rabbitoh, his eyes shining like an animal's in the darkness of its hide." Yet he is no Captain Hook; the comparisons between this book and Peter Pan are due to the way the reader is compelled to see beyond the obvious crime-and-retribution analysis of a kidnapping.

Anna Xenos, also known as Dial, is a Yale professor with nostalgia for her student activist days, a deceived woman who had thought she was helping the movement by whisking Che away for an afternoon with his mother, only to face a chain of events that ends in a national manhunt for Che's kidnapper. Seen from her perspective, the story becomes an acute portrayal of the victims that ideology coldly leaves in its wake, of the choices between society and family and between moral and emotional obligations.

Che's mother is in fact dead, but she took pills to dry up her breastmilk and "decided to harden her heart" against him almost as soon as he was born, and his meeting with his father is so im personal that Che doesn't know it's happened: "There was likely a code the father must live by so no matter how his heart was hurting he could not speak to his son, not even touch his hand, just live his secret, itchy life enclosed in hair."

But this is also the story of a very young mind oscillating between antagonistic conceptions of itself. The woman who has snatched Che from his grandmother loves him, so she must be his mother, mustn't she? And if she isn't his mother, how long can her love last, how far can it stretch?

Then there is the question of whether he can forgive her for not being his mother. For much of the story, Che is named simply as "the boy", and the ease with which his identity could be lost imbues this tale with the anxiety that accompanied the Darlings' entrance into Neverland, a world they weren't born into, a world in which they have no stake, a world that makes them as fragile as thread caught in a needle.

At the broken-down commune, Che contemplates the size of the gap between his former, privileged existence and his new one. Now "there would be no light switches in his life" and he is to become a different kind of boy, a barefooted rebel trying to kick life in the teeth. Anna is a sort of mother, suddenly a mother but more than a pretend-mother: more is required of her than that she tell good bedtime stories.

Her panic and helplessness are encapsulated in the scene where, after she has used the stash of money pushed at her by Che's parents' movement to buy a share in the commune, Che asks if they can stay at a motel, and she drives him around Queensland, searching for a diversion, until she decides that a piece of bark ripped from a tree will do. She hands it to Che, and he writes her name on it. Che and Anna are trapped in relativity to each other - she cannot outrun him, nor he her.

The writing has a stark, atmospheric economy to it, too - cut fruit opens "like a book", and the Rabbitoh prepares himself for stalking around by replacing his hat "so the brim was low and hid his thoughts from view". There are moments when Che's self-awareness is difficult to buy - his telling Trevor "I'm only a kid" when asked to perform a difficult task springs to mind - but ultimately he needs love more than he needs to know who he is. And, with a mind not to spoil the ending for you, this particular lost boy is wonderfully (and believably) recovered.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty