Having already read five of the sixteen books on this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist before it was announced, I’m now working my way through the others.
Valeria Luiselli’s long essay, Tell Me How It Ends, recounted her period working as a translator for the unaccompanied child refugees who arrive at the US-Mexico border from the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Her first novel written in English, Lost Children Archive, picks up on these themes though an unnamed female narrator who is driving with her husband, daughter and stepson from New York to Arizona. Our narrator wants to document the Mexican migrant ‘crisis’, which has been brought to her attention via a friend who is trying to find her two lost daughters. Her husband is more interested in the soundscape of the ‘vanished’ Apaches who once lived in Apacheria, retelling the stories of their decline to his children, which the girl gleefully repeats as ‘when Geronimo fell off his horse, he died’. Her narrative is interspersed with descriptions of the contents of various boxes the couple have brought with them for their two projects, which, as Luiselli explains at the end of the novel, is one way of citing her sources within the text itself, rather than confining them to footnotes. There’s also an emotional tension on this long road trip; our narrator and her husband are considering divorce, which means that the two children, who are ‘only’ step-siblings, will be separated.
More than half of this long novel is narrated by this female narrator, and this section fits squarely into the emerging genre of autofiction, tracing the themes of Luiselli’s own life very closely. However, it lumbers under the weight of its own intertextuality. Everything that the family encounter has to be fitted into the theme of lost or vanished children in some way, from the haunting voices in ‘Echo Canyon’ to the fading images in Polaroids. Moreover, as Luiselli suggests in her note on sources, this is not just autofiction, but a kind of creative non-fiction; she deliberately wants to weave her workings through the text to tell the horrific story of the journeys of child migrants. This is compounded by the introduction of an imaginary text into this section, Elegies for Lost Children, which effectively and brutally narrates the experiences of these children. While this text would work well on its own, the way Luiselli scatters it throughout an already complicated and thematically-burdened narrative dilutes its force. It’s only when we finally get to read it in full that it really hits us.
Luiselli pushes at the boundaries of the novel form, but in doing so, loses much of what makes novels work. It’s in the shorter second section, narrated by the stepson, where Lost Children Archive really comes alive, making it one of the very few novels that I’ve ever read that manages to win back some ground after the halfway point. Unlike his stepmother’s narrative, the stepson’s voice is compelling, and it foregrounds one of the most successful aspects of the novel; the depiction of his relationship with his stepsister, which perfectly shows how children create little worlds of their own. Indeed, when Luiselli is writing about real rather than figurative children, she’s incredibly good on the physicality, word-play, and belief systems of childhood. Once the two children step into a kind of alternate reality formed from reading Elegies for Lost Children, the novel reaches another level; suddenly, it works as it should, free from references and footnotes. You can almost feel the pages speeding up.
The first section, however, is not only inferior because it’s so dense; I just wasn’t convinced that all the different kinds of loss Luiselli explores worked very well together. Most obviously, the novel plays into the ‘vanishing Indian’ narrative, assuming that Native Americans are now totally absent from America, which is recognised as an untruthful and harmful trope that ignores the persistence of these peoples. It’s a shame to see this perpetuated in a book that is otherwise so good at highlighting the displacement caused by American power politics, tracing this back (for example) to the division of Texas from Mexico and its annexation by the United States. Moreover, the divorce plotline never felt emotionally credible; I couldn’t understand what had come between this couple, and the impact on the two children was implied rather than shown. When the kids strike out on their own, it feels totally unmotivated, and while this was my favourite bit of the novel, I suspect that they do this not because their own motivations have taken them to this point but because Luiselli wants to manoeuvre them into a final symbolic journey.
While you have to admire Luiselli’s ambition, Lost Children Archive doesn’t really work as a whole. I like it better than some of the Women’s Prize longlistees I’ve read because of its sheer inventiveness, but I’d be surprised to see this make it to the shortlist.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.