Booker 2019: Lost Children Archive

2nd September 2019

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

4th Estate

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

When a publisher announces ‘the moving, powerful and urgent English-language debut from one of the brightest young stars in world literature’, that’s a book with a lot to live up to. Thankfully, 4th Estate are not over-egging the pudding in their lavish praise of Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. It is all of those adjectives and more: beguiling, inventive, complex.

A husband and wife set off on a road trip from New York to Apacheria, the area that the Apaches once called home. Both are sound archivists: ‘Pa was a documentarist and Ma was a documentarian, and very few people know the difference. The difference is, just so you know, that a documentarian is like a librarian and a documentarist is like a chemist.’ Much is made of the subtle distinction, although, to be fair, it matters less to us as readers than it does to the characters themselves. What’s key is that this is a family – and a novel – in which documenting, evidencing and recording are key.

With them are their children: they have brought a child each to the marriage and ‘the boy’ and ’the girl’ have grown up as siblings. Now ten and five, they are close; the relationship between them is a truly lovely, loving thing. The relationship between their parents, however, is slowly disintegrating: they no longer want the same things from life, from each other, and early in the novel we learn that the woman expects to fly home alone with the girl, while the boy and his father remain behind. The trip is one last family pilgrimage. They drive for hours through desert and mountains, eating at diners, sleeping in motels or rented rooms. They tell each other jokes; the father tells stories of the Apaches, inspiring the children with tales of Geronimo.

We never learn the children’s names (or those of the adults, either), although over the course of the journey they acquire nicknames: the girl Memphis and the boy Swift Feather; the mother Lucky Arrow, the father Papa Cochise.

It is he who has initiated the trip, inspired by the idea of taking ‘an inventory of echoes’ – an archive of the sounds of the Chiricahua Mountains, where, he explains, ‘the last free peoples on the entire American continent lived before they had to surrender to the white-eyes’. His wife, who narrates the first half of the book, meanwhile, has the idea for an audio documentary about the migrant children who arrive at the US border from Central and South America and go missing at the hands of ‘coyotes’ (smugglers) or government. She has a Mexican friend back home in New York whose two young daughters, travelling alone, have vanished, despite having made it into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, despite having their mother’s phone number sewn into the collar of their dresses. The narrator has it in mind to try to locate the missing pair.

Interwoven with the family journey are readings from a book she has brought with her, called Elegies for Lost Children. Attributed to an Italian, Ella Camposanto (1928-2014), it is, of course, an invention of Luiselli’s own: the dangerous, desperate journeys of seven anonymous child migrants into the United States… a story-within-a-story device that both derails and underpins the main narrative. Their namelessness (an interesting mirror of the unnamed family whom we have come to know so well) is a powerful illustration of the depersonalisation of the migrant experience. Luiselli shines a bright light on the wrongs done to immigrant children in Trump’s America.

In keeping with the documentary theme, we also learn the contents of the archive boxes that the couple carry in the boot of the car: migrant-mortality reports, maps, newspaper clippings, poems, music. There are pages of photographs at the end, the polaroids that the boy has learned to take as they cross the vast American landscape in search of themselves.

The first half is told scattergun, in small sections, not always sequential, with titles such as Mother Tongues, Time, Teeth and Procedures; the second, narrated by the boy, is more straightforward but no less powerful. It recounts an almost mythical journey he and his little step-sister take, alone, to Echo Canyon, with just their father’s stories to guide them, in which their experience merges with that of the lost children who are always with them and not with them.

This is an ambitious multi-layered novel, richly poetic and unashamedly detailed, intricate and imaginative. It explores what holds families together, what holds societies together. It asks us to entertain big ideas – what it is to be human in an inhuman world; what it is to be documented or undocumented – and while it challenges us on a cerebral level it gets in underneath and tugs at the heart-strings too. Lost Children Archive is a book to remember.

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