Book review: 'Lost Children Archive' is inspired by the migration crisis on the US-Mexico border

The novel is a fictional follow-up to Valeria Luiselli's factual book 'Tell Me How It Ends'

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Dan Callister/REX/Shutterstock (1734912l)
Valeria Luiselli, New York, America
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City in 1983 and now lives in New York, where she is completing a PhD at Columbia University. Formerly the online editor for the literary magazine Letras Libres, she has published literary criticism, poetry translations and personal essays in several magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. She looks back on the genesis of her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, a playfully experimental story of passion, identity and loss.
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In the summer of 2014, author Valeria Luiselli, her husband and their two children took a road trip from their home in New York City to Arizona, a journey that coincided with an ­unprecedented number of ­unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border. Fleeing violence in ­countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the children surrendered themselves to border patrol guards in the hope that they would be legally allowed to join relatives already living in the US. As a Mexican immigrant herself, the crisis struck a chord with Luiselli. At that time she was also waiting to receive her Green Card.

Luiselli volunteered as an interpreter at a federal immigration court

Once her family had returned to New York, Luiselli began volunteering as an ­interpreter at a federal immigration court. Her 2017 book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions – for which she won the American Book Award in 2018 – wove together her experiences from her road trip to Arizona and subsequent volunteer work, and the stories of the people she ­encountered.

The "40 questions" refer to the number of queries on the standard intake questionnaire for undocumented children, while Luiselli also wanted to highlight that the stories she heard as a translator rarely came to a satisfying conclusion. Surviving the journey to the US was only the first battle; the legal struggle that followed was every bit as uncertain. In no case was sanctuary guaranteed.

TIJUANA, MEXICO - MARCH 30: People look towards the U.S. on the border barrier, on the U.S.-Mexico border on the beach, on March 30, 2019 in Tijuana, Mexico. U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters yesterday “there's a very good likelihood” that he will close the U.S. Southern border next week.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
People look towards the US on the border barrier, on the US-Mexico border on the beach, on March 30, 2019 in Tijuana, Mexico. Getty Images

'Lost Children Archive'

Luiselli's new novel, Lost Children Archive, is the fictional companion piece to Tell Me How It Ends. It's an exploration of the same subject and is inspired by the same events. In the book, a nameless family of four – a married couple and their two children; the man's 10-year-old son and the woman's five-year-old daughter – are travelling across North America. The man is relocating to Arizona to make an "inventory of echoes" about "the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches". The woman, who is a documentary maker, begins the book unsure what her next project will be. She finds her subject in the refugee crisis, which requires her to "chase ghosts and echoes" of a different kind to her husband.

Children have a slow, silent way of transforming the atmosphere around them

In terms of a traditional plot, not an awful lot happens. Luiselli eloquently recounts the rhythms of family life on the road – the chatter of the children in the backseat of the car, the stories their father tells them about the Apaches, and the evenings the couple spend together on motel porches after the children have gone to bed – while stitching in more essayistic musings.

In particular, she captures the children's world shrewdly. "Children have a slow, silent way of transforming the atmosphere around them," the mother explains. "They are so much more porous than adults, and their chaotic inner life leaks out of them ­constantly, turning everything that is real and solid into a ghostly version of itself."

'The children will ask, because ask is what children do'

Luiselli begins the novel with the woman pondering a future conversation with her child. "I don't know what my husband and I will say to our children one day," she says. "But the children will ask, because ask is what children do. And we'll need to tell them a beginning, a middle, and an end. We'll need to give them an answer, tell them a proper story."

This "proper story" is what Tell Me How It Ends couldn't offer the reader, and although Lost Children Archive by no means presents itself as a definitive take on the topics of exile, loss, love, identity and family, it is an evocative story and Luiselli succeeds in delivering an empathetic and deeply moving examination of these subjects.  

'Lost Children Archive' by Valeria Luiselli.
'Lost Children Archive' by Valeria Luiselli.

Lost Children Archive ambitiously tests both the shape a novel can take, and the scope of what it can be. It's a masterclass in intertextuality; Luiselli explains in a note on works cited at the end of the book that her novel is "in part the result of a dialogue with many different texts". Some of those texts are real – there's an extensive bibliography, while the books the couple use for their research are also listed in the text itself – and some are fictional. That includes Elegies for Lost Children, with Luiselli entwining chapters of its story with the account of the family travelling south.

Although Elegies for Lost Children was created by Luiselli to help her main narrative in Lost Children Archive, it's in these "extracts" that the author comes closest to the truth about the "lost children" she's writing about.

Ultimately, Lost Children Archive is a gripping, important work. It goes further than simply rehumanising the refugee children, who are most often referred to by the American media as "aliens" or "illegals", and it's a novel in which Luiselli joins writers such as Lisa Halliday (Asymmetry) and Jenny Erpenbeck (Go, Went, Gone), who used fiction to bear witness and give voice to the displaced and exiled people in authentic and innovative ways.

When US President Donald Trump last week threatened to shut the border with Mexico, it was also a reminder that the story Luiselli tells has never been more relevant.