"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"-- "A novel about a family of four, on the cusp of fracture, who take a trip across America--a story told through varying points of view, and including archival documents and photographs"--
A family of four sets out on a road trip from New York to the southeastern corner of Arizona, where the Apaches made their last free home. The drive is leisurely, a last family vacation before they split, the man to a job in Arizona, where he will live with his son, the woman and her daughter returning to New York. As they travel, they explore the history of the end of freedom for the last indigenous tribes of America, and the woman has an added concern; she had been helping asylum seekers and immigrants in New York as a translator and she hopes to find two girls who have disappeared for their desperate mother. The girls were making the desperate journey from central America to her when they vanished.
This is a story about family, about the troubled history of the United States and about the disaster of our southern border. There's a dreamy, elegiac quality to the writing that had me rereading paragraphs as I went. It's a gorgeous book and I think its one we'll still be reading decades from now.
The story is basically about a family driving from New York to the Southwest in order for the father to record sounds and the mother to find the two lost immigrant children of someone she is acquainted with. A young girl (the daughter of the mother), and a young boy (the son of the father) are along. The first major portion of the book is narrated by the mother with dozens of words I've never seen before and many obscure allusions to works of literature, poetry, film, etc. Sometimes I looked them up and sometimes just passed over. Some of the sentences are totally beyond me.
Page 84 is a good example: After a strange sentence, the narrator says: "I went to the university...with professors who spoke like that. I had to bear their amphetamine-fueled, connect-the dots, rhizomatic, and thoroughly self-satisfied language. I hated them." Her description of the professors describes her exactly. Both adults are so self-absorbed and seem to need to appear so intellectual with such scorn for the ordinary.
Interspersed through this narrative are chapters telling of seven young children who are immigrants basically traveling by themselves by riding on the tops of trains. No back ground, no names, no history. Terrible descriptions, but still not engaging. At the same time, the father is telling the story of the displacement of the Apache tribes in the Southwest.
Basically just weird; perhaps there is some deep philosophical premise here, but it pretty much escapes me.
The premise is interesting: a husband and wife, each with a child from a prior relationship set off on a cross-country trip from NYC to New Mexico. The husband is going to do research for a project on Apaches. The wife is considering a project on the border crisis with immigrant children. Starting out, it is known that the marriage is in trouble. In fact, the husband decided on the trip without consulting the wife. He probably doesn't even want her along, and there are indications that he probably won't return to NYC with her. But both the husband and wife are pretentious intellectuals, and it is apparently beneath them to discuss matters like this. And obviously, all the people they come across on their road trip are ignorant, uneducated, and sometimes dangerous, hicks. I don't think the author intended the wife (no one has a name in this book) to be as unlikeable as I found her. I can take unlikeable characters, but not in this case, when the author so clearly admires her.
I was particularly dismayed at the interaction with their children. She had given the boy, her stepson, a polaroid camera, and none of the pictures he was taking were coming out. What does she tell him? "Perhaps they're coming out white not because the camera is broken but because what you're photographing is not actually there." Come on!! I think the kid is 9 or 10, not yet a budding existentialist.
And the audiobooks in the car? For the boy and his 6 year old sister they start with Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but, "even if we especially like The Road, it seems a little too rough for the children." Ya' Think?? So they settle on the much more age appropriate and cheerful Lord of the Flies.
During the trip she ponders how a radio documentary--her project--can be useful in helping more undocumented children find asylum. A worthy project. Here's some of the gibberish she runs through:
"...instrumentalism, applied to any form, is a way of guaranteeing really shitty results: light pedagogic material, moralistic young adult novels, boring art in general. Professional hesitance: but then again, isn't art for art's sake so often an absolutely ridiculous display of intellectual arrogance? Ethical concern: And why would I even think that I can or should make art with someone else's suffering? Pragmatic concern: Shouldn't I simply document like the serious journalist I was when I started...." etc etc. through "realistic concerns" and "constant conerns".
I admit to not finishing this one, so maybe it got better.
It's difficult not to see the book as a true-to-life account of what Luiselli herself might have went through in her own life, up to a point. There are so many shared details, from the little that I know of Luiselli. The concerns of the character on page 79 for speaking for the marginalized for the undocumented children recording project might be Luiselli's own concerns about writing a book about undocumented children or the Apache, so she used this sort of framing in the book, about a life similar to her own to distance herself from both - to not speak directly for the Apache or undocumented children...and just speak for a character similar to herself. That is completely understandable. But at some point, it's better to have someone speak for them if they are unable to speak for themselves. Halfway through the book, the point of view switches to the ten year old. I can appreciate that Luiselli's writing style actually sounds like a ten year old's voice. She got that spot on. When an author switches between characters and voice doesn't change, that is certainly one of my readerly problems. There are also beautiful yet painful digressions into a smaller book within a book that the characters read during their trip called 'Elegies for Lost Children'. I loved all the influences that were either mentioned directly, within bankers boxes that contain the projects, or alluded to throughout the book. Luiselli is certainly a reader's writer who has appreciated so many books and those books are connected to this one. Overall, a great book to appreciate on a sentence level and as a whole.
The storylines. This book is about a blended family (father/son and mother/daughter) and the relationships: husband/wife and brother/sister. Parents/kids. Why does the mother refer to them as "the boy" and "the girl"? It seems so...cold. Or does it mean the narrator is a native Spanish speaker, which is never stated but somewhat implied as they travel through Appalachia. It is about competing careers, as each parents--who met working on a common project--are now each looking at different projects. It is also about teaching your children, and I felt these parents strongly overshared age-inappropriate materials, not considering how children might interpet/react to what they are being told.
It is also about the last band of Apaches, including Geronimo, that held on in southeast Arizona (the husband's new project). It is about the child migrant disaster happening in the southwest (the mother's new project). And as I was reading this, the current administration is planning to house children at Fort Sill, where Geronimo is buried and where the characters in the book go, and the wife would have been more invested in that trip if this book were written next year.
There are CLEAR parallels between the parents' two projects: the husband trying to capture, in sound, the absence of Apache (or the sounds that they are no longer hearing?). A group the US government fought, and drove out, and imprisoned and moved and buried outside their homelands. The wife, trying to document the US government's taking and imprisoning and hiding and losing and deporting children fleeing violence and poverty, sent north to live with parents or relatives already here. 150 years apart, and the governmental philosophy has not changed much.
Back to the notes section.
Because she has all sorts of references to other works (most of which I have not read) that she is referencing without it being important (??). Hmmm...anyway, one of those quotes, from Juan Rulfo, I actually noticed in the text, as it is an excellent example of what the desert is like. And the one critical thing I would say about this book is that she does not do a good job of capturing the heat and dryness of the desert. Though she does not give a month that this book takes place (other than the month after the boy's 10th birthday), he attends school as a school project is mentioned, but I don't think they mentioned pulling him out of school. So, June? Or possibly August, since there is repeated mentions of thunderstorms--that's the monsoon, in late July/August. So it's hot. Very hot. Very dry. Sucks-the-moisture-out-of-you-dry. No one is traveling all day with one water bottle unless it is HUGE. It is just. So. Hot.
There is definitely a layer I don't think I got here, involving the references she discusses at the end. I'm pretty sure I'm not smart enough to understand it, because I can't understand most of that section, and it's a great example of why I wasn't an English major. But I'm not sure it really matters.
The biggest barrier for me was the narrative. I was distanced from these characters, not because their experiences were vastly different from my own, but because I never understood who they were; I was never fully invited into their thoughts. Who was this unnamed woman? We're told about her endeavors, about her passion for others—but the woman we get on the page seems rather detached from everything that happens. We're told about her volatile marriage, but the marriage on page is boring at worst. We're led to believe the son is incredibly mature and intelligent—and this is actually shown in the narrative—but when the plot demands the son doing something really, really stupid, suddenly his common sense completely evaporates. Unfortunately, none of these characters are developed in a way to make sense of their actions (or inaction) in the story.
Certainly, my lackluster opinion of this novel reflects my own bias—I like character-driven stories. This novel fails in regards to creating interesting, multi-dimensional characters who possess a notable arc. Lost Children Archive definitely excels when it comes to language and delivers a satisfactory plot—readers who are turned on by language and plot will find more appeal than I did. In the end, I admire this book for its intellectual and artistic acumen, but I just don't think it fully delivered.
The author slowly develops the characters of the mother and children, but never really reveals much about the father. This creates a bit of odd tension that I wasn't entirely fond of early on, but Ms. Luiselli continued to draw me in by moving the voice of the narrator to the young boy. This was where I felt the story really matured. The children were ultimately the main characters in this story and where the hidden beauty of the story comes to life.
This wasn't exactly an entertaining story, almost seeming to be scientific early on with the descriptions of the recording vocations and purposes, yet I began to see some logic in the storytelling, and inevitably became mesmerized by the modeling that the children copied and used to such industrious effect.
Lost Children Archive: A Novel is the newest work and third novel from Valeria Luiselli, who is perhaps most well known for her second novel, The Story of My Teeth, which was named a best book of 2015 by almost everyone and was nominated for the Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award; has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize; and named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. As befits this pedigree, Lost Children Archive is original, startling, and frequently lyrical; it is also confounding, meandering, and frequently oppressive.
The book begins with the woman’s first-person narrative. She, as well as the other family members, remain nameless throughout. She met her husband when neither of them was doing work of their first choosing; how does that impact who they are together when they return to first choices? The woman suspects this trip is going to end their time together as a family and her anxiety is palpable. Her insecurity about her future sets her emotionally adrift and we flounder with her. This is where the oppression comes in — we are trapped in her mind with her.
The woman and the children are deftly drawn; locked in her deteriorating mindset, we get to know her well, and the children’s dialogue and thought processes are spot-on. Every parent of a small child will register the truth of these scenes. The man remains a blank slate, unknowable to the woman and so to us.
Luiselli is brilliant, a rare talent, but I think she may’ve taken a step too far since she felt it necessary to include notes on sources and works cited in order to explain the unusual structure of the book and how those works (elegies that allude to Ezra Pound which is an “allusion” to the Odyssey) function as “intralinear markers” to other voices from the past. The reader should be able to grasp what an author has done without explanation. This left me frequently impressed but unengaged. During the road trip, the woman walks in on a book club meeting at a bookstore. She thinks that it sounds like a graduate seminar, not a book club, and she doesn’t understand what they’re saying. Well, yes.
Halfway through the book, as my attention began to wander, there’s a change in narrator as the boy relates the trip from his perspective and then takes over the story. This is just what was needed and yet is wholly unexpected. I was riveted for a time by the fresh voice. The boy’s narrative is an act of love and generosity.
Lost Children Archive is a beautiful physical specimen, its jacket rendered in desert colors, the pages decorated with the eerie Polaroid photographs taken by the boy during the road trip as he begins his own attempt at archiving. Luiselli revels in language and so do we. The children, crawling into bed, “puppying around” as they arrange themselves to sleep. She describes the boy’s first successful photograph as not being of the gas pump that is in the photo, but as a record of the time the boy figured out how to use the camera. You see?
Luiselli deals with important questions as the woman begins to doubt her work and the documentary form itself. What use a documentary if it produces no tangible effect? Is the act of witnessing, the fact of a witness, necessary if that witness is powerless? Do the lives of these children become media fodder, a form of entertainment? There but for the grace of God and all that.
I do not read beforehand about books I’m going to review; it’s been difficult ducking Lost Children Archive since it appeared on shelves in February. I did see the headline of Francisco Goldman’s piece on this novel for Lithub, calling Lost Children Archive “a novel for our time.” That may be so, for it leaves me restless and profoundly unsettled.
Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.
Valeria Luiselli’s novel was nominated on the long list for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and you can quickly understand why it definitely earned a place there: the author masterly combines fact and fiction, mixes different types of materials to for something new and she has an outstanding capacity of using language.
There is so much one could say about the novel which makes it difficult to make a selection for a short review. The largest part is narrated from the mother’s point of view, a character who is highly poetic in describing especially her family relationships and who thoroughly analyses not only how the dynamics within the family shift but also how they interact with the outside world. I also liked this idea of having boxes in which each of the characters collects things with a certain meaning for them. Then, you have the American history – the past with the stories of the Native Americans which is contrasted with the present and its train of children moving towards the country.
The characters are not given any names, they are just mother and father, son and daughter. They could be anybody. They are you and me confronted with the real world and forced to understand that we live in a kind of multi-layered reality in which you repeatedly have to adjust yourself and your opinion depending on your current point of view and knowledge and experiences. The novel does not provide definitive answers, but it provides you with masses of questions to ponder about.
I read this online, in a Netgalley review copy for the phone and I think that might affect my review. The book circles ideas of archiving and recording, as a "blended" family makes a trip South to record for a documentary (her) and for one of those academic projects that is on the slightly bonkers end of the spectrum (him). Travelling with two small children, the first half is her narrating the journey alongside her increasing awareness that the relationship is over, and at their destination she will take her child and he will take his (always referred to as "The girl" and "The boy"). The journey is long, in parts dull, and sometimes scary (police asking for papers). Along the way Luiselli builds up a picture of the family, mum map reading, dad trying to interest the kids in stories of Native American histories as part of his work, and the (older) boy taking pictures with his new instant camera, whilst the five year old amusingly misunderstands much of what is going on.
The mother's research project is linked to the missing children travelling the rail lines from Mexico. The boy absorbs the story and makes a dramatic decision.
The book includes images, lists and many quotes: I suspect a beautiful print edition might have swayed me more towards a positive response. There are some lovely passages, sections that made me think, but I can't forgive it for a very long central section that made me want to give up!
I have reached the particular age of reason that gives me the right to decide not to finish a book if it contains foul language, explicit sex, or a political agenda. This book satisfied two of the three reasons to give it up. After listening to a bit more than one third of the book, I felt I had heard enough to know what the author’s message would ultimately be. I did enjoy the writing, as I felt there were moments of brilliance in the presentation, with metaphors that painted unusual scenes in my mind, but also there was the unnecessary use of crude language. The use of the “f” word to indicate lovemaking and messing things up, was unnecessary and the novel would have been better served had it been elevated with a better choice of language. The writing style intrigued me, however, with short chapters, titled imaginatively to make this reader wonder about the intended meanings.
The narrators do an excellent job of reading the novel, not interfering with it, but rather enhancing it with a matter of fact tone in the presentation that contains just the right amount of emotion and just the right amount of distance. However, the story becomes embroiled with too much detail and too much political innuendo as the family progresses in their trip across the country.
The novel’s message feels like part travelogue, part parenting instruction booklet, part marriage counseling, and part left wing agenda. It definitely appeals to the emotional, virtue signaling side of the reader, contrasting it with those readers who can’t sympathize with the plight of the innocent who are hurt in the process. They are made to feel pretty hard hearted. The plight of the undocumented children and their undocumented parents is front and center. Apparently, once someone enters the country illegally and manages to hide successfully for a lengthy period of time, it is acceptable, to some, for them to then bring in their children illegally and to object if they are caught in the process. Then the abusive and cruel treatment of the Native American Indian is also illustrated in the novel. The wife and mother is handling one side of the problems and the husband and father of the two children in this family, handling the other. Their identity, ethnicity and true background was not revealed to me.
Although the couple met at work, both having one child of their own, they soon formed a blended family that they thought worked quite well until they became embroiled in their own personal research projects which threatened to divide them for either a lengthy period of time or possibly, even, forever. Although they both met working on a project concerning the study of sound and both were interested in different sides of the sound spectrum, their studies now were leading them to more amorphous sound studies with the mama, studying the sound of the lost children’s voices and the papa studying the echoes of the phantom sounds of the Native Americans, specifically the Apaches.
The book had the potential to be great, if it had kept to the subject and not gotten caught up in so much detail used to denigrate the American countryside and the American treatment of people they didn’t consider to be “white eyes”. The message imparted by the book could have remained non partisan had it stuck to the plight of the children and the history of the Native American, but in the drive across country, the lessons they taught to their children tended to be very partisan and often “fake news” in nature. Their own failures in their relationship, and the secrets they kept from each other, colored their interpretation of events.
I would recommend this book to someone with a bit more time and patience than I have for the topic in the way it was being developed. The two sides of the coin being studied would have been far more interesting to me without so much extraneous information. It contained a great deal of truth about public opinion concerning the immigration problem and ICE. I was more interested in learning about that, rather than the tangential issues covered within the novel.
The author, an immigrant herself, worked in the field of undocumented immigration and so the information she brings to the table should be irrefutable, as it comes from a place of actual experience. Imbuing the story with fantasy and foul terms diminished the overall quality and message imparted.
No character had a name, except for Manuela, an illegal whose children were being held in a detainment camp. No character endeared themselves to me, not even the children who seemed one-dimensional and as smug as the parents who were alternately too wise or too ignorant. On the one hand they seemed imbued with knowledge and on the other with immaturity, naïveté and inexperience. This was presented in contrast to the lives they had already lived.
From what I read, the book was a study in opposites. They were smart or not, they told the truth or not, they kept secrets or not, they were happy or not, they were making a life together or not, they were going forward or not, they were in love or not, etc. The ground kept shifting.
The book felt well researched as names of famous authors, composers and song writers were dropped into the narrative with bits and pieces of really interesting information that I did sometimes question in terms of its veracity. I wondered, from what I read, is it really worthwhile to provide money for grants to study the sounds of conversation, languages, etc., over the study of scientific causes and cures for disease? Should not money be allocated for more realistic research?
The book also made me wonder about the way we tell a story about history. Are we rewriting it in the telling of it with our own interpretation? So if sounds are different to everyone, is information also imparted differently to each learner?
Overall, I felt the book was exploiting my emotional reactions to the facts, rather than presenting the facts for me to ponder. The children cross into the country from Mexico facing danger and then hope to be captured and provided with sanctuary. Am I expected to agree with this behavior? Are children being brainwashed to sympathize with this illegal immigration policy simply because of the danger they face. Are we?
The book swings from an intellectual presentation to a crass one, from factual to fantasy, from high brow to low, intentionally. Is the message that the problems we face are fluid, fungible, depending on the time and place and circumstances?
Are we being instructed to listen, even to the sounds of silence, as we read, to the sounds of the world around us, the noise, the quiet, the echoes, the murmurs, the whispers, the shouts?
Mama, is relating her experiences and she interprets all of the reactions and relates to all of the conversations. She is in charge. She knows the answer to that question. Perhaps, when I am more inclined, I will try and read it again. It has potential. It isn’t that I didn’t like it, it is rather that it wasn’t written in a way my mind would appreciate, at the moment.
The book covers a relevant topic though. I liked how the Lost Children Elegies was woven into the book. How the Elegies were written (scraps of other writings) and then how they were woven into reality. Very different. And the structure of the book was good too.
But overall I wished the first part hadn't been so wordy and that overall the book hadn't been so sad.
"Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology."
We do not get many road trip novels, and this one arrives, at an ideal time, in America, as it deals with the many facets of immigration. It follows a family of four, as they leave NYC and cross country to Arizona, with many lingering and memorable stops along the way. The story unfolds, told mostly through the mother and ten-year old son, who recently purchased an old Polaroid camera, to document the trip.
The author has a strong, unique voice, taking bold chances with the narrative, that are both, refreshing and insightful. A terrific summer read, with real substance.
Valeria Luiselli's highly praised new novel was both compelling and thoughtful. My Goodreads feed tells me I highlighted 157 passages, which means , like the author's quote above, I too found that inhabiting the author's mind gave me many opportunities to pause and reflect, not just her many brilliant descriptions, but also on the lives thousands of children crossing the borders and the history of the American natives driven from their land. She structures her novel in the form of a family journey with each parent pursuing different histories, documenting in different ways. Their children are along for the ride, a three week journey in their Volvo from New York to southwest Arizona, where the bones of Geronimo and the bones of many South American refugees inhabit the same space. Narrated mostly by the mother, we are also provided her many references to other works of literature and photography. But besides the education we're getting by delving into these references, we start to see the waning of a family. Their marriage might not survive this journey and the novel becomes more intense as the ten year old boy takes over the narrative and the focus of his parents.
In addition there is a book within the book called The Elegies of Lost Children which is being read by both the mother and the boy. This supposed journal from an Italian author gives Luiselli a chance to break from her family narrative and demonstrate her skills:
"The man in charge sits cross-legged next to them, taking puffs from a pipe and blowing smoke into the dark. The dry leaves nested in the bowl of his pipe hiss when he inhales, then kindle orange like a tangle of electric circuits in a sleeping city seen from far above."
"The wheels of the train spit sparks, a dry branch snaps in the dark, the pipe pit crackles again, and from the metallic intestines of the train, a sound like a thousand souls shrieking can be heard all the while, as if to pass through the desert, it had to crush nightmares in clusters."
Ms. Luiselli's research into this topic initially stemmed from her own work as a translator for the New York court system, documenting the stories of the children going through amnesty decisions. In interviews she explained that she had to first write that book, a nonfiction piece entitled Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. It's remarkable how the author managed to construct the story she wanted to tell in two different formats. I would recommend this book and look forward to exploring her other works as well.
Some good lines:
Unhappiness grows slowly. It lingers inside you, silently, surreptitiously. You nourish it, feeding it scraps of yourself every day—it is the dog kept locked away in the back patio that will bite your hand off if you let it. Unhappiness takes time, but eventually it takes over completely. And then happiness—that word—arrives only sometimes, and always like a sudden change of weather. It found us on our tenth day into the trip.
a scrotum-faced woman, neck speckled with warts and stray hair, and eyes like a welcome mat on which too many shoes had been wiped.
They weren’t looking for the American Dream, as the narrative usually goes. The children were merely looking for a way out of their daily nightmare.
For the next twenty minutes or so, we’re all silent inside the car, listening to the songs that shuffle and play, looking out our windows at a landscape scarred by decades or maybe centuries of systematic agricultural aggression: fields sectioned into quadrangular grids, gang-raped by heavy machinery, bloated with modified seeds and injected with pesticides, where meager fruit trees bear robust, insipid fruit for export; fields corseted into a circumscription of grassy crop layers, in patterns resembling Dantesque hells, watered by central-pivot irrigation systems; and fields turned into non-fields, bearing the weight of cement, solar panels, tanks, and enormous windmills.
The colors of the jungle, its fetid vapors, ignited their open eyes with wild visions. Nightmares flowered in all their dreams, filled them with humid tongues and yellow teeth, and the big, dry hands of older men.
While this was a work of fiction, the author provides many resources to find out more about migrant children, other lost children, and the Apaches. I also liked how there were real photos of some of the events the characters talk about. I had recently read Orphan Train and this book has real documents and photos relating to that. The main point of this novel was how inimical and inhumane the US policies have been towards brown people, starting with the original natives and continue to this day. The book does have some harrowing parts but that is to be expected. There were events that happened at the end of the novel and that made me a little frustrated but then the author didn't disappoint me. My favorite parts were the boy's point of view about how he sees his family and his sister. I really liked this novel and I am going to explore her other works.
A book-within-a-book device is used to tell the first-hand stories of the migrant children, deflecting any concerns we might have about who wrote all this stuff down (not that it sounds inauthentic at all: I'm sure most of it came from actual testimony), and we follow the story through the eyes of a middle-class couple and their children on a summer-holiday road-trip from New York to Arizona. The four main characters are all flawed: Luiselli wants to make sure that we realise that no middle-class person, including herself, can really imagine what it is like to be a refugee. In the adults, we're shown how, although well-intentioned, they keep getting distracted by their own selfish concerns with their work projects and their relationship and crucially overlook what their children are experiencing; in the children we see that their idea of living part of the refugee experience to get their parents' attention is silly, because deep-down they still have an (unreasonable) faith that whatever bad thing happens, an adult will turn up to rescue them.
This is a book that works very well on audio: it seems to have been designed with that in mind, and it's performed almost as a play with two main and two minor narrators, bits of ambient sound, and so on. Not coincidentally, audiobooks play an important part in the family's road-trip, the parents are both people who work with sound, and various parts of the narrative are supposed to be tape recordings. (Do professionals still use tape?)
A very clever, moving book.
(*) Or Jude the obscure...!
I'd say about halfway through, the plot got strong. About 75% of the way through, though, I wasn't at all sure anymore. But at the end, I just said: Wow. It was just plain beautiful and powerful.
Do you want the plot? Couple, 10-year-old boy, and 5-year-old girl drive from NYC to the southwest for the father's research project on Apaches and the mother's attempts to help an immigrant locate her two missing undocumented little girls. First half or so is narrated by the mother. The 'marriage is ending' - this plot point is part of what gave me intense dislike in the first 25%, but let me not start complaining about that. Second half or so is narrated by the boy. I don't think I'll give away any spoilers, but things do happen.
I have to on balance give it only 3 stars because it threatened to lose me so often.
A family sets out from New York City on a road trip to Arizona. The husband wants to explore the area where the Apache band made their last stand which was the Chiricahua Mountains in south-east Arizona. The wife, narrator of most of the road trip, is working on a documentary about children from Central America who come north to the US Border looking to find parents or other relatives. The husband is the father of a 10 year old boy and the wife is the mother of a 5 year old girl. They have been married for about 4 years but it seems their marriage is about to collapse. Although the son and daughter are not related by blood they are very close. We learn quite a bit about the family and the dynamics between the members as the road trip continues. The son, sensing that the family is on the edge of breaking up, decides to run away with the girl. He is probably hoping this will bring the family back together although he never articulates that. He narrates the last bit of the book interspersed with a third person narrative that is a pages long run on sentence. (See what I mean about the book trying too hard?)
There are pictures and copies of documents and excerpts from other books. Eventually these things work into the general narrative but I found it disruptive to flip back and forth. I am disappointed in this book and I really would not recommend it to another reader.
First and foremost, this is a story of a road trip - New York to Arizona. Included on this road trip are a husband and wife, their troubled marriage is unlikely to survive after they reach their destination, the husband's son from a previous marriage, age 10 and the wife's daughter from her previous marriage, age 5. The relationships among the steps are really sweet and loving. As a whole, they get along well and the children are indeed endearing.
Secondly, the story is about relocation, mainly forced. The author weaves two tales into the main body of work describing how, within the United States, the youngest and most vulnerable are taken from their parents and scattered to parts unknown.
Luiselli's work, which documents not only the times in which we live but also the tragedies of human relocation over the past 100+ years, asks questions which can not easily be answered but brings to light events which shouldn't be forgotten. Her writing is beautiful and her use of an antiquated form of media turns the reader into a voyeur of sorts, peering into the loneliness and hugeness of America. Still, be warned, it is a slow, tedious read with little action but worth the time if you can see it through.
The main narrator of Lost Children Archive is an audio documentarian and formerly single mother of a five year old daughter who captures sounds of everyday life and people in New York City, who meets and marries a fellow Mexican-American audio documentarian and father of a 10 year old son while working together on a project. Due to their common interests and backgrounds they marry and live contentedly together for some time. The marriage begins to fray, and when the husband decides to go on a trip to Oklahoma to document the journey and resting places of Geronimo and the Apache people, the last of the native Americans to lose their freedom to European invaders to their land, they decide to make a family vacation out of it. Just before they leave the narrator learns about the humanitarian crisis at the border, and she decides to chronicle it during the trip, and to attempt to locate the two young daughters of Manuela, a Central American woman she meets, who were placed in a modern day internment camp in Arizona after their arrival to the border but have become lost since then. However, it is clear that the journey will be the last one the family spends intact, as the husband intends to remain in Oklahoma to complete his project and not return to New York with his wife and children.
During the often claustrophobic journey by car the family listens to audiobooks to pass the time, taking time to sightsee and capture their discoveries by audiotape and Polaroid instant cameras, while spending their evenings in often dodgy motels in small towns in the heartland populated by Americans who are distrustful and occasionally hostile toward the Latino family. They also read books by well known authors that the parents brought with them, most notably "Elegies for Lost Children", which describes the harsh journey of children accompanied by a strange man to an unknown destination and an uncertain future.
In the second part of the book, the 10 year old boy gains a voice as a narrator, and through his eyes we see the stress that he and his sister experience as they watch their parents' slowly fraying relationship, his deep love for his parents and especially his stepsister, and his desire to locate Manuela's daughters and keep the family intact.
Luiselli, unlike the author of an inauthentic and currently popular middlebrow novel, does not attempt to tell the stories of the Lost Children, as she does not know them personally, and, being brought up in a prosperous Mexican family and having spent much of her life outside of her home country, she realizes that she cannot truly identify with the conditions that caused these immigrants to leave their homelands and the experiences they faced en route to the border and after they arrived there.
Lost Children Archive is a superb accomplishment and a very compelling novel based on the author's personal experiences, which brings attention to the plight of the Lost Children encamped at the US-México border in an intellectually satisfying and educational read without descending into inauthenticity or trauma porn. Due to its rich complexity the reader would benefit from a second or third effort, which I will do later this year or in 2021.