Lost Children Archive
A mother and father set out with their two children, a boy and a girl, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer. Their destination: Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home.
Why Apaches? asks the ten-year-old son. Because they were the last of something, answers his father.
In their car, they play games and sing along to music. But on the radio, there is news about an “immigration crisis”: thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained — or lost in the desert along the way.
As the family drives — through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas — we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure — both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.
Told through several compelling voices, blending texts, sounds, and images, Lost Children Archive is an astonishing feat of literary virtuosity. It is a richly engaging story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. With urgency and empathy, it takes us deep into the lives of one remarkable family as it probes the nature of justice and equality today.
Author: Valeria Luiselli | Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Rating: 5 / 5
“Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don't know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently. No one has quite been able to capture what is happening or say why. Perhaps it's just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable. And without future, time feels like only an accumulation.”
I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, which reflects on her experiences as a volunteer translator for child refugees seeking asylum in the United States. It was fantastic, and so when I heard that she had written a novel that deals with the same subject matter, I knew I had to read it. Add in the fact that it was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, and I was doubly sold. I bought a signed first edition from Strand Bookstore — and I’m so glad I did.
Lost Children Archive was absolutely stunning. Melancholy, reflective, narrative, musical. The moments she brings to life are so creative and specific that it’s hard to believe she made them up. But be warned: It’s very literary, and getting through to the end is a commitment. That commitment pays off wonderfully, beautifully, but you have to be okay with feeling like you’re wandering around a bit before you get there.
The story is about a family — a mother (the main character), a father, the mother’s daughter, and the father’s son. None of their names are given — they’re referred to as “me,” “my husband,” “the girl,” and “the boy.” The parents are professional sound-collectors: she as a journalist, and he as a sort of artist. For four years, they worked on a project together in NYC, but now their professional goals are diverging, so the family’s future is in flux. He plans to spend several years inventorying the sounds that exist in Apacheria, the home of his ancestors. She plans to examine the child refugee crisis at the USA-Mexico border but return to NYC. So they’re driving across the country together without knowing what will happen at the end of the trip.
So the first half of the book or so is the mother’s account of this history and this uncertain future. There’s a lot about the individual family members, her uncertainty about marriage and family, and the lessons about the Apache people that the father imparts on them all. This is the part of the book that feels a little aimless — you think, I expected to read more about refugee children, when will this part of the story end?
“Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape? Or will it all be sound rubble, noise, and debris?”
Then the perspective shifts to that of the boy, and we get to see everything from a familiar but entirely new angle. And by the end of the book, you realize that the first half of the book was not aimless — in fact, it was incredibly important and even insightful. The way everything crashes into itself at the end left me feeling like I’d been walloped in the stomach. The narrative bends and twists and reveals and breaks and will not be ignored. I’m going to be thinking about it for a long, long time.
If you like books that are fast-paced, that move along and make you wonder what’s going to happen on the next page, then this may not be for you. It’s not “exciting.” This book is for those among us who really love literary fiction for the genre’s sake, who look for a wider world on every page, who are willing to trust authors who promise that they have something important to say in the end. This one takes patience, but it’s more than worth it.