Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Published by 4th Estate, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐
This is one of those instances in which I could see and respect a lot of what the author was trying to do, but stylistically, I just couldn’t connect with it.
The story follows a blended family as they drive across America. The parents are documentary makers, specialising in capturing sound. As they educate their kids about the Apache people (the subject of the father’s latest project), we see parallels with the present-day news stories playing out on the radio; migrant children being detained, pushed out, imprisoned, and displaced as they attempt to cross the US/Mexico border.
This is undoubtedly a timely novel, and yet it ruminates on the timelessness of humanity. I enjoyed its efforts to reflect the idea that events of the past echo throughout time (mirrored in the parents’ work with sound), and its look at the importance of documenting lives and experiences, so that we, and future generations, may learn from them. Luiselli’s prose is great at times, and she implements some fantastic imagery.
I did have a lot of issues with the execution, however. I love literature, and adore when an author can weave meaningful references to other works into their own. In this case, Luiselli shoehorns in so many references that it becomes farcical. Aside from lengthy passages of dialogue discussing books, every chapter opens with an epigraph, and some chapters literally just list book titles. It stops feeling like Luiselli is trying to draw thematic or narrative parallels, and starts to feel pretentious and self-congratulatory; a cringy effort to show-off how cultured and well-read she is. I doubt this was her intention, but it’s how it read to me.
The character development also felt off. There’s a lot of telling, rather than showing, particularly with the supposed tensions between the parents. We’re often told that they’re fighting and on the brink of a breakup, but the context of this felt lacking. The children fear that a separation would result in them being split up, thus ‘lost’ to each other. It becomes clear that this is supposed to be a thematic mirroring of the migrant children lost in the desert, but these are hardly problems of the same calibre. It all starts to feel like a terribly middle-class, privileged, and clumsy brand of empathy.
When the POV switches to that of the ten-year-old son half-way through, I found him very inauthentic as a narrator; the adult writer always visible through his words. By the time I reached the now infamous 30-page-long sentence (not a chapter, not a paragraph; a sentence), I just felt weary and emotionally disconnected.
There was also an element of expectation versus reality, which I concede is not strictly the book’s fault. I had been under the impression that the narrative would switch back and forth between the family and a group of migrant children. It doesn’t. The children, around whom the book is supposed to focus, are defined by their absence. Deliberate, yes, but a wasted opportunity, I felt. The book could have been a platform for migrant voices to shine. Arguably it is, but not at all in the way I hoped.
The aim of the book is one that I (and anyone with a shred of moral decency) can support 100%. It’s to deride the indignity of the way the current US administration treats migrants, and to highlight the country’s repeated mistreatment of those it deems ‘other’ or ‘undesirable’, by comparing what’s happening now to the experiences of Native Americans. Good intentions don’t equal a good book, however. The almost mythic quality given to the migrants doesn’t exactly help to humanise them. Nor does the rhetoric surrounding Native Americans, which seems to imply that they are resigned wholly to history books, sit very comfortably.
The number of glowing reviews for this prove that it can work in the hands of the right reader; the ability to gel with Luiselli’s singular style evidently key in connecting to the narrative. Sadly, I couldn’t.
You can pick up a copy of Lost Children Archive from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!