This brilliant novel- the first written in English by Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli- is right up there with Milkman in my personal canon, for the way it approaches terrible, crushing human experiences through imaginative fiction and moves us at a most profound level. It’s a road novel on the face of it, the main narrative telling the story of a family of four travelling from New York across the US to the last home of the Apache Indians in Arizona. Interwoven with this is a narrative about the children travelling from Central America and crossing the Mexican border to enter the US. With its focus on the activity of documentation and its inter textuality it plays with ideas of fiction and non- fiction, making the reader aware of our expectations of a narrative, of storytelling at the same time as we pray for the characters, muttering under our breath please, please, please make it alright.
This is a novel whose characters come alive from the very beginning. Narrated by the young woman who’s the mother of the family ( we don’t know their names, though they adopt family nicknames later on) we learn that she’s been together with the father for about four years. They met on a project in New York, recording the soundscapes of the city. He’s more of an acoustemologist, his equipment of boom pole, mic and headphones part of his persona throughout the book, whereas she’s more interested in the sounds of human communication and tracks the vast number of languages spoken in New York. They fall in love and move in together, he with his son, whose mother died shortly after his birth, she with her daughter whose father she’s split up from. They reform as a family with their own routines, habits, language and humour. Through her work at the New York City Immigration Court the mother meets Manuela, whose two daughters have travelled from Southern Mexico to the US/ Mexican border to join her. They’d been taken by a coyote (people smuggler) as far as the desert, where they were picked up by the Border Patrol and taken to a Detention Centre. From there they’re applying for legal entry to the States.
The idea for their journey comes from the husband. As the soundscape project comes to an end he’s become interested in the last Apache Indians and wants to visit the Chiricahua mountains where they lived, to make sound recordings there. This isn’t compatible with the narrator’s work with the refugee children in the New York courts, and the plan is that they’ll make the six week journey together, and that he’ll then stay with the boy in Arizona while she returns to New York with the girl. It’s apparent from the start of the journey that their relationship is at a low point- the narrative is peppered with squabbles and disagreements- and we know that in all likelihood they’ll separate. Yet they’re engaged and attentive parents and the journey through different states, landscapes, motel rooms is made bearable for the children through stories, songs, games and jokes. And for the boy (who at 10 has a window on that adult world) there’s his Polaroid camera. He takes a bit of time to learn how it works, but then he becomes a documentarist- or documentarian- like his parents. His collection of photographs are on display at the back of the book.
The activity of documenting is a key part of the book. The family are travelling with seven archive boxes in their boot, four for the husband, one for the narrator, and, because they felt they wanted one too, one each for the children- which are empty. The novel is loosely structured around these archive boxes, with some sections headed up Box 111 for example, and prefaced with a list of the contents, mainly books for the adults. Some of these appear in the main narrative, some were more familiar to me than others and appear later in the book. So the adults discuss Lord of the Flies with the boy and there are echoes of what happens in that text later on. (There is a very helpful note by the author at the end of the book about referencing, including the contents of the Archive Boxes, which would illuminate a second reading). And sound, the documentation of sound, and song is important too. The family are heading for a place called Echo Valley, which plays a key role in the plot later on and words, references and sounds bounce back and forth across the book like echoes in that valley.
More generally, though, the omnipresence of the Archive boxes -and that boom pole-all contribute to a debate about truth and fiction in the novel. On the one hand the narrator may be Valeria Luiselli herself- readers will know from her previous book Tell me how it ends that she translated for child refugees in the New York courts- so this may be autofiction, that hybrid entity between fiction and non fiction. There’s also a question about whether we can ever capture reality, what really happened in the past to the Apaches, or what’s happening to the Lost Children at the Mexico Border right now, through documentation. It’s as if those Archive Boxes are big, but what’s happened in those two dreadful situations is much bigger. There’s also the element of story telling. The novel doesn’t play on the human craving for stories, like for example Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, but the writer certainly knows how to keep her readers engaged. As the journey progresses and we get closer and closer to the characters I found myself wanting the parents to stay together, a kind of Happy End, and as the children’s story takes over I was desperate for it to end well. And when the boy and girl see a name and phone number sewn into the collar of one of the Lost Children, I thought please please let it be one of Manuela’s daughters.Only to feel silly shortly afterwards when its pointed out that every refugee child has the name of their mum or auntie in the States sewn into their collar.
There’s a book in the narrator’s Archive Box which forms a kind of bridge to the second section of the book, narrated by the boy. The book is called Elegies for Lost Children and is a series of texts about a group of children travelling to the Mexican/ US border. This is a harrowing account of the dangers and deprivations of that journey-of travelling on the roof of the train called la bestia, of being beaten and exploited by the coyotes, of being hungry, cold and brutalised. The narrator reads sections aloud to the boy and records herself reading the texts aloud too. The boy knows his mother is intensely engaged with this book and the events it describes and this leads to the last section of the book, narrated by the boy. It would spoil to go into detail about what happens, but as the two stories merge, that merger replicated brilliantly in the sentence structure itself, I felt I was being drawn into another world, into a different level of consciousness, into another dimension. Reading the author’s note on references at the end helped to explain the effect this had on me. This is powerful writing indeed.
So this is a complex and multi layered novel- but readers should not be put off by that. There’s a clear central story, well told, with engaging characters and familiar-and familial- problems and we want to know what happens in the end. The dream-like, surreal quality of the narrative when the two stories merge is absolutely compelling and transporting. And the last section, narrated by the boy for the girl reduced me to tears- he’s referring back to their shared love of David Bowie’s song Space Oddity and the roles of Ground Control and Major Tom they took on when singing along in the car. The song’s other worldly tone, the dialogue between the two as one leaves the earth, the play on words with Odyssey- it’s all there, and for someone of my generation it triggers a huge wave of nostalgia too. The book has been spinning round in my head ever since, its ideas and emotions triggering echoes and connections. And of course it offers us a deep insight into the terrible plight of the refugee children travelling across the Mexican border. Thank you so much, Valeria Luiselli.