Booker Longlist Review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

by Sunita

This is the fourth book I’ve read from the longlist. I had read Luiselli’s previous nonfiction work, Tell Me How It Ends, which describes her experiences as a translator for children apprehended at the border, and I thought it was excellent. This is a much longer and more complex work of fiction, with multiple storylines and themes. It may have too much going on, but its ambition should not be held against it.

This novel falls squarely within the current trend of autofiction and combines a road trip, a marriage that is ending, and twin stories of children becoming lost in the southern Arizona desert. As I said, there’s a lot going on. The characters in the main storyline comprise a blended family of four who are traveling from New York to southern Arizona on a long, fairly leisurely automobile journey. The husband and wife are documentary sound specialists, by which they mean scholars and artists who record all kinds of sounds that help them understand and illuminate the built and natural worlds in which we live. The father is embarking on a new project set in Apacheria, the part of the United States that was the home of the Apache nation before they were massacred by Americans (and previously Mexicans) and relocated to reservations. The mother is continuing a project that records the sounds of unaccompanied children and southern border migration. Their two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged ten, are with them on the trip.

The family road trip aspect of the novel is structured by the journey and their work, which is contained in seven bankers’ boxes in the back of the station wagon. They contain supplementary material, including archival resources, and also the children’s selections for the journey (toys, books, photos). Along the way the mother reads from a book, Elegies for Lost Children, which tells the story of seven unaccompanied children who are riding La Bestia, the train to the US border, and that journey serves as something of a parallel roadtrip. The two storylines are brought together in the last section of novel, which is told from the son’s point of view; all the preceding narrative has been from the mother’s perspective.

The mother’s narrative ranges far and wide, from mundane and not-so-mundane observations of people and places along the road, to recollections and quotes from scholarly and creative books she’s read, to internal monologues about her husband and marriage. The husband is present as the driver and fellow artist, but he’s almost entirely silent, except for a few times when he talks directly to the children and less often to her. Luiselli namechecks many writers and thinkers, which fit into the flow of the story for me because I knew who most of them were. But if you aren’t as familiar with this literature it could be distracting or annoying. Some readers found it self-conscious and pretentious. I enjoyed it.

I had the most trouble with the marriage storyline, for a couple of reasons. One is that the domestic drama sat uncomfortably for me alongside the story of unaccompanied immigrant children in danger (there is a recurring concern for a pair of sisters who are based on real children Luiselli worked with). The ending of a marriage is usually a sad, even tragic event, and it can tell us about relationships and humanity more generally, but it is a personal, intimate tragedy. The treatment of unaccompanied (and accompanied) children who are crossing borders is a different kind of tragic event, one whose occurrence implicates us all and which demands political and policy responses. I found the marriage storyline interesting but compared to the other, I found myself caring very little for why it was ending.

The second reason is more specific to me, and it bears on my increasingly mixed feelings about autofiction. This is a work of fiction, but the characters are clearly based on real people. Luiselli and her former husband, Alvaro Enrigue, are writers rather than sound artists, but otherwise there are a lot of characteristics taken from their lives. Enrigue was indeed working on a book about Apacheria, which has recently been published in Spanish. Luiselli was deeply involved and working with undocumented children. Her work is closer to nonfiction styles of writing (and she has published nonfiction), while his is more in the short-story and novel traditions, and he uses historical settings to explore both historical and contemporary issues. But Enrigue is less the father in this novel than Luiselli is the mother: the father is white American, for one thing, which sets him apart from the mother and children, and he doesn’t speak Spanish. The daughter mirrors their real-world daughter but the son is an amalgam (I think) of Enrigue’s two sons from a previous marriage.

I realize this is entirely Luiselli’s work and she has the right to portray her fictional characters as she wishes. But coming into the novel I had read more by and about Enrigue than Luiselli, so in some ways I was more drawn to his character than hers, and it created an issue for me when I was reading. It’s entirely her story, but I kept evaluating the characters on the page with the characters I’d read about in interviews, or whose work I’d read. It continually interfered with the story on the page and I had to work very hard to overcome that.

I almost gave up a number of times, but then, somewhere past the halfway mark, the narration switched to the perspective of the son. There’s a bit too much of recapitulating what has gone before from the son’s POV, but then the lost children (of all types) take center stage and the power of their stories (which have been intermittently present up to now) take over. There is a 20-page single-sentence, single-paragraph section that is phenomenal. I was completely gripped by what was on the page.

So, in all, this is a mixed bag of a novel. It bites off way more than it can chew, and it veers repeatedly from intellectualizing to emotional solipsism to current events (including wearyingly stereotypical depictions of people in flyover country, but also including acute insights about today’s USA). Luiselli is a compelling and talented writer. But the book also makes me impatient for a Spanish translation of Enrigue’s Apacheria novel. And I really need to get back and finish Sudden Death.