New York Times Review
LAST SUMmer, when the American government separated thousands of migrant children from their parents - detaining them far apart and sometimes losing track of children - the outcry was visceral, and full-throated enough to provoke a stampede of storytelling by activists and journalists. There seemed to be an imperative, both professional and moral, to pay particular attention to the experiences of the children. There was a duty to humanize them, to counter political language such as "illegal alien." But what such stories really hope to do is humanize their readers, listeners, spectators: the desensitized consumers of news. The reporting aims to make us see beyond legal, national or partisan labels into the hearts of migrants, to awaken us to empathy. Which of us who has loved a child wouldn't be moved by the evocative details of innocence snagged on the jagged fences of adult circumstance? This newspaper, for one, told of the mooing that resonated at bedtime through a converted Walmart superstore in Texas where 1,500 boys, despite being detained, could still make animal noises in a conspiracy of silliness and take refuge in pretending together. The novel "Lost Children Archive" unfolds against this very backdrop of crisis: of children crossing borders, facing death, being detained, being deported unaccompanied by their guardians. The novel follows a couple and their two children (all unnamed) from previous marriages, a 5year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, on a road trip from New York City to the Mexican border. There the wife, the novel's narrator, intends to work on a journalistic piece about the "removals" of child migrants by the United States Border Patrol, and the husband on a sound project about the 19th-century "removals" of Apaches, the last Native Americans to surrender to American soldiers. Valeria Luiselli charts the couple's intellectual concerns and political commitments (and her own) in ruminative, layered prose that deliberately digresses more than it progresses, with a riffing, essayistic logic, subtitles that become refrains, and minimal plot. The couple's marriage is on the brink of collapse, and for the first half of the novel their physical journey is mirrored by an emotional circling, back to and around the memories of when they first found each other and moved in together as a family. As they drive southwest, they listen to radio reports about migrant children in trouble, and the wife learns that the daughters of a woman she knew through her daughter's school, and once helped as a volunteer interpreter, have somehow gone missing during deportation. Meanwhile, the wife is reading aloud (sometimes to her children, sometimes into her recorder) a translation of an Italian novel, "Elegies for Lost Children," about unaccompanied children riding atop trains to an unnamed country. Luiselli alludes to and cannibalizes many real books, some canonical, some obscure, in "Lost Children Archive," but this Italian novel is a work of her own making. Its true author is not the fictional Ella Camposanto but Luiselli herself. She interweaves this invented book with her own so that the two texts and the two journeys - one by car, meandering and almost desultory; the other speeding forward with the almost locomotive propulsion of suspenseful fiction - seem on their way to a collision. A diplomat's daughter born in Mexico and raised across borders and languages, Luiselli has herself been preoccupied, since her own 2014 family journey to the border, with the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children who each year climb aboard a northbound freight train called La Bestia, or "the beast," seeking asylum. Her previous book, a nonfiction work called "Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Lorty Questions," arose from her interviews with migrant children as a volunteer court interpreter in New York City. In "Lost Children Archive," her fifth book (her first novel to be written in English), she's as preoccupied with her doubts over whether and how to tell their stories as she is with telling them as urgently as their tragic situation demands. Of course, a novel's purpose and potential are different from those of a newspaper article or a radio spot. Books that immerse us in the internal and external deserts unaccompanied child migrants must cross - books that mirror the characters, trajectory and terrain of Luiselli's imaginary text-within-a-text - already exist. Among several works of narrative nonfiction about their plight is the journalist Sonia Nazario's "Enrique's Journey," which shadows a Honduran boy as he rides the rails to reunite with his mother in the United States. There's also poetry from a first-person perspective: "Unaccompanied," by Javier Zamora, who fled El Salvador atop trains at the age of 9. Other works in English, all factual, have kicked open the doors of this particular experience. WHAT PERHAPS SETS A NOVEL APART from these other genres is the childlike pleasure it can take in pure play, in the imaginative pact of treating the artifice of the story as lived reality. And there is joy in make-believe in "Lost Children Archive," which gains much of its wry charisma from the playacting of its precocious child characters - both those riding atop trains and those riding in cars. At one point in "Elegies," thumps and shouts from the illicit rooftop cargo of children ricochet down the length of a train, as infectious as the mooing in that former Walmart. But rather than inviting her readers to suspend disbelief, as children do, Luiselli instead encourages us to see the artifice as artifice, even to be wary of it. Can she, as an adult and a relatively privileged one, possibly capture the reality of these children, in fiction or nonfiction? The novel's narrator, brooding over her proposed oral histories of asylumseeking children, doubts that she can or should ever get as close to her sources as her husband gets to buzzing insects with his mic. She questions the ethics of exploiting the children's lives as "material for media consumption": "Why? What for?" she asks. "So that others can listen to them and feel - pity? Feel - rage? And then do what? No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning." But what might one do after reading a novel that stirs pity and rage? Acutely sensitive to these misgivings, Luiselli has delivered a madly allusive, self-reflexive, experimental novel, one that is as much about storytellers and storytelling as it is about lost children. Play she in fact can, and does: with structure, cleverly, inventively. Her previous work won accolades for its risk-taking with form. "Tell Me How It Ends" was structured as responses to the questionnaire on the immigration court's intake form. "Lost Children Archive" takes the highly complex shape of an archive. It contains three recognizable narratives: (1) the wife's eddying first-person musings subdivided into recurring headings such as "Allegory," "Reverberations," "Climax" and "Histories"; (2) transcriptions of recordings the boy has made for his little sister to remember the desert adventure that unfolds when, noting the attention their mother pays to lost children, they purposely get lost themselves; and (3) the third-person "Elegies" threaded throughout as either the wife or the boy reads them into the recorder. Slipped in among these accounts are the boy's Polaroids of people and places along their journey; a humanitarian group's map pinpointing migrant deaths in the desert; mortality reports identifying migrant remains; a photograph of a clunky cellphone, toothpaste and a pen recovered in Pima County, Ariz.; a map the boy has drawn to show his parents their runaway path; an image of Apache prisoners being transported east by train in 1886; a 1910 poster seeking guardians out west for homeless children in New York City; a photograph of these orphans sent west by rail and catalogs of the seven storage boxes the family carries on their trip. The contents include a bibliography for theorizing about archives, maps of the Southwest and a novella entitled "The Children's Crusade" about a legendary 13th-century child migration from Europe to the Holy Land, a real book cited as the inspiration for "Elegies for Lost Children." Add to all this the husband's stories of a band of Apache children called the Eagle Warriors and there are four layers of historical lost children that Luiselli connects to the contemporary ones in her novel. Given her interest in echoes of past injustice, her archival structure makes sense. Anything, any enclosure for the material remnants of the lives of others, can be an archive. Even the floor of the Sonoran Desert, where migrants dead and alive have left pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Red Bull cans and bottles of water painted black to escape notice at night. While stories soothe with their imposed semblance of order, archives exhaust with the often incomprehensible chaos of what's been left behind. It's no coincidence that the subheadings "Chaos" and "Order" recur in the book. Or that a novel so concerned with the arbitrary, impossible nature of storytelling should embrace archives, with their shapeless, indeterminate character, as its scaffolding. This highly conceptual, cerebral approach is rich but occasionally frustrating as it carries nested within it the potential to stir pity and rage. Luiselli holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Columbia, and "Lost Children Archive" is a virtuosic, erudite performance, referring back to and repurposing the words and strategies of modernist writers like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, metafictional tricksters like Vladimir Nabokov and masters of the difficult, experimental and hyperallusive like James Joyce. Luiselli's significant set of references also includes the David Bowie song "Space Oddity," Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" and "Lord of the Flies," William Golding's dystopian classic about children running wild in the absence of adults. Her novel bears rereading, to reveal pleasing ironies (the boy loses the "little red book about lost children" on a train) and stylistic sleights of hand (that little red book begins in much the same way as "Lost Children" itself). In Luiselli's most thrilling section, the children from the fake book meet those from the actual book in a derelict train car in the desert, their voices merging as they walk toward one another, the stream of consciousness of one band collapsing into that of the other. The section "Echo Canyon" consists of one mounting, rhythmic, delirious and possibly hallucinatory feat of a sentence spanning 20 pages. It is reminiscent of Molly Bloom's epic soliloquy in Joyce's "Ulysses." The final irony might be that with "Lost Children Archive," Luiselli has indeed written the sort of novel about unaccompanied children that she seems to resist: the bookwithin-the-book she ascribes to Camposanto. Its metaphors are wrought with devastating precision. In a fable-like scene set in a train yard where swindlers, vendors and entertainers mill, to help or exploit the migrants, Luiselli/Camposanto describes one fortuneteller as "a scrotumfaced woman, neck speckled with warts and stray hair, and eyes like a welcome mat on which too many shoes had been wiped." The elegies, foreshadowing the loss of a boy on a train, are riveting. They achieve a lyrical immediacy that makes us feel for those children atop the train. The brilliance of the writing stirs rage and pity. It humanizes us. Play Luiselli in fact can, and does: with structure, cleverly, inventively. GAIUTRA Bahadur has spent time in archives, for her book "Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture," and on the migrant trail in Arizona's Sonoran Desert while reporting for The Nation in 2010.
Publishers Weekly Review
Luiselli's powerful, eloquent novel begins with a family embarking on a road trip and culminates in an indictment of America's immigration system. An unnamed husband and wife drive, with their children in the backseat, from New York City to Arizona, he seeking to record remnants of Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache, she hoping to locate two Mexican girls last seen awaiting deportation at a detention center. The husband recounts for the 10-year-old son and five-year-old daughter stories about a legendary band of Apache children. The wife explains how immigrant children become separated from parents, losing their way and sometimes their lives. Husband, wife, son, and daughter nickname themselves Cochise, Lucky Arrow, Swift Feather, and Memphis, respectively. When Swift Feather and Memphis go off alone, they become lost, then separated, then intermingled with the Apache and immigrant children, both imagined and all too real. As their parents frantically search, Memphis trades Swift Feather's map, compass, flashlight, binoculars, and Swiss Army knife for a bow and arrow, leaving them with only their father's stories about the area to guide them. Juxtaposing rich poetic prose with direct storytelling and brutal reality and alternating narratives with photos, documents, poems, maps, and music, Luiselli explores what holds a family and society together and what pulls them apart. Echoing themes from previous works (such as Tell Me How It Ends), Luiselli demonstrates how callousness toward other cultures erodes our own. Her superb novel makes a devastating case for compassion by documenting the tragic shortcomings of the immigration process. 31 photos. 75,000-copy announced first printing. (Feb.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.