Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on February 12, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg: 3.96 (as of 2019-04-16)
From the two-time NBCC Finalist, a fiercely imaginative novel about a family’s summer road trip across America–a journey that, with breathtaking imagery, spare lyricism, and profound humanity, probes the nature of justice and equality in America today.
A mother and father set out with their kids from New York to Arizona. In their used Volvo–and with their ten-year-old son trying out his new Polaroid camera–the family is heading for the Apacheria: the region the Apaches once called home, and where the ghosts of Geronimo and Cochise might still linger. The father, a sound documentarist, hopes to gather an “inventory of echoes” from this historic, mythic place. The mother, a radio journalist, becomes consumed by the news she hears on the car radio, about the thousands of children trying to reach America but getting stranded at the southern border, held in detention centers, or being sent back to their homelands, to an unknown fate.
But as the family drives farther west–through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas–we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, unforgettable adventure–both in the harsh desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.
Told through the voices of the mother and her son, as well as through a stunning tapestry of collected texts and images–including prior stories of migration and displacement–Lost Children Archive is a story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. Blending the personal and the political with astonishing empathy, it is a powerful, wholly original work of fiction: exquisite, provocative, and deeply moving.
I can easily see a lot of people hating this book. In fact, I can see myself hating this book. It’s dense and it’s work to get through. This is yet another one I would almost definitely not have finished if I wasn’t reading it for the Women’s Prize. The writing style isn’t my thing and it’s immediate from the start that layout of the book itself is atypical, for lack of a better word. It’s a “family story” and a “road trip book,” both of which I also tend to stay away from. There are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book, but somehow I did.
The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day the other can suddenly become a stranger.
There are so many layers to this, and I know I didn’t fully understand all of it. The main character and her husband are sound archivists, which right away makes for a bit of an intriguing tone. It explains the unusual formatting and lets our narrator examine things in a light we may not be accustomed to. It also helps to incorporate the underlying theme of the novel: illegal immigration in the United States.
No one thinks of those children as consequences of a historical war that goes back decades. Everyone keeps asking: which war, where? Why are they here? Why did they come to the United States? What will we do with them? No one is asking: why did they flee their homes?
The narrator and her husband meet while working on a project to record all of the languages being spoken in New York City. The narrator herself was born in Mexico and becomes obsessed with the children crossing the border, hoping to join their family on the other side. Once the language project is complete, she decides to make her next project about giving voices to these lost children. Meanwhile, her husband’s next project is on the other side of history: he has become deeply obsessed with the history of the Apache tribes of Native Americans.
[…] reading others’ words, inhabiting their minds for a while, has always been an entry point to my own thoughts.
I found myself becoming deeply emotionally connected to the narrator throughout the first half of the book, until the focus shifts to the son. From there, I became more enthralled with the plot itself. I found the switch interesting; I went from somber introspection to a more dreamlike reading experience. I enjoyed both parts of the book and felt like they really balanced each other out.
Hard to explain why two complete strangers may suddenly decide to share an unbeautified portrait of their lives. But perhaps also easy to explain, because two people alone in a bar at two in the morning are probably there to try to figure out the exact narrative they need to tell themselves before they go back to wherever they’ll sleep that night.
There are so many deep themes to this that I wish I could discuss in detail, but just can’t grasp strongly enough to wrangle into a coherent analysis. I really wish I had read this in a lit class in college, I know I would have gotten so much more out of it. Regardless, I’ll probably be reading whatever pieces I can find on this, so if you happen to see something interesting please send it my way!
Once he even recorded our voices talking in the backseat of the car, and then played them for Ma when they thought we were both sleeping and not listening. And it was strange to listen to our own voices around us, like we were there but also not there. I felt like we’d disappeared, thought, what if we are not actually sitting back here but only being remembered by them?
All in all, while this was a challenging reading experience for me, I really felt it was worth it. Luiselli succeeded in making me think deeply while consuming her work, and I hope to return to it in the future — perhaps with a better context to place it in. I recommend picking this up if you’re looking for some slower moving literary fiction to make your brain work.
More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
The Silence of the Girls