Reviews

Family road trip meets border crisis

Lost Children Archive is Mexico-born Valeria Luiselli’s English-language debut.
Lost Children Archive is Mexico-born Valeria Luiselli’s English-language debut.PHOTOS: DIEGO BERRUECOS

A New York-based couple on the brink of separation sets off on a road trip with two children in tow, as they pursue their respective dreams.

The wife is a journalist wanting to document the crisis of child migrants heading from Central America and Mexico to the United States, while the husband has secured funding for a soundscape project on the last Apaches, a group of Native American tribes in the south-west.

In a bid to prolong their time together, they pack their belongings into seven boxes, heading south for Arizona - in a path contrasting with that of undocumented children fleeing north to reunite with relatives.

The journeys of the family and migrant children mirror and intersect throughout the book in unexpected ways.

Written like a series of diary entries, Valeria Luiselli's English-language debut, which has been longlisted for this year's Women's Prize for Fiction, is both a tender, emotional read that explores a family's relationship, as well as an urgent piece of social commentary on America's ongoing border crisis.

The Mexico-born author's latest novel brings to mind her 2017 work of non-fiction, Tell Me How It Ends.

While the book was structured around 40 questions asked to undocumented children facing deportation, drawing from Luiselli's experience as an interpreter at a federal immigration court, Lost Children Archive imagines in first-person the harrowing experience of these children arriving at the US-Mexico border.

  • FICTION

  • LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE

    By Valeria Luiselli

    Harpercollins Publishers/Paperback/ 383 pages/$27.82/ Books Kinokuniya

    3.5 stars

A fictional book cited at length in Luiselli's latest novel tells of how the children walk for days, guided by a coyote, collapsing in fatigue and nursing blood-drenched feet. They then climb to the top of a train in hopes of reaching the US safely.

But Luiselli does not tell this story in isolation, instead interspersing it in the US family's own story, in a seeming reminder that each is just as real as the other.

The family's journey, peppered with heartwarming details such as a child's knock-knock jokes, is perhaps less alien to most readers.

What starts off as a whirlwind romance between the unnamed protagonists, who meet while recording a soundscape of New York City, heads towards an uncertain future when their project ends.

As they embark on the trip, the wife, who narrates the first part of the novel, grows increasingly aware of the chasm between them: One day, she takes a picture of her husband playing with the children and realises that "they look as though they're not really there, like they are being remembered instead of photographed".

While her half of the book references literary heavyweights ranging from writer Susan Sontag to poet Walt Whitman, Luiselli demonstrates her versatility when she allows the couple's 10-year-old son to take over the narration in the second half, with subheadings mirroring his mother's earlier account.

Readers learn that his parents' preoccupations do not escape him, and he eventually runs away with his younger sister to find the lost children weighing on their mother's mind. He says: "Ma would start thinking of us the way she thought of them... And Pa would focus on finding our echoes, instead of all the other echoes he was chasing."

While some may find the book's pace too slow for their liking, those who take in Luiselli's words will find in her pages a bitter-sweet documentation of the human condition.

If you like this, read: The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman (Little Brown & Co, 2019, $42.96, Books Kinokuniya), a collection of essays by immigrants on being "othered" in an increasingly divided America.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2019, with the headline 'Family road trip meets border crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe