Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I love our reading group for two main reasons: I get to talk with others about my favourite subject and we read books I wouldn’t have chosen myself. Sometimes our choices are disappointing, but much more often the choices are very rewarding. This was the case with Lost Children Archive, which we read in March.

This novel already had a good reputation, and the topic of refugees, refugee children and their treatment is sadly and persistently in the news, both in the UK and in the US. This book was longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019 and it confronts the events at the US southern border head on. Not only is it topical but this is an innovative and imaginative novel that deserves attention.

Lost Children Archive

The main narrative of the novel is a road trip taken by two adults and their two children from New York to the southwestern states. The adults have left  careers in sound recordings to pursue their own interests: the husband is looking for the echoes of the Apache Indian tribes. The mother is drawn into a search for the stories of children who cross the border separating Mexico and the US. She had met Manuela at the school gates and heard that she is expecting her children, two girls, to arrive at any moment. 

As they drive, they witness the economic decline of many places: abandoned gas stations, ruined motels, the empty highway. Sadness pervades this trip because it is clear to the mother, the narrator of most of the book, that she and her husband will part when they reach their destination, wherever it is. 

As they travel, we are drawn into other texts, about sound recording, about the first nations, and the Elegies of Lost Children. These elegies are created by the author, but reference many other writers: Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Galway Kinnell.

There is other documentary material provided in the text, not least the Migrant Mortality Reports, photographs and the boy’s Polaroids. The importance of documenting, recording, creating these archives runs through this novel. What does it mean to be American? The indigenous population was all but wiped out, and deprived of land and other rights; the migrants from the south have the ambition to be American; the family who make the road trip find themselves adrift in their own country.

The climax is narrated by the boy and meshes with the stories in the Elegies and Manuela’s daughters who have their mother’s phone number stitched into their clothing. 

An innovative and imaginative novel

I have already mentioned some of this novel’s originality: the use of texts from elsewhere, and other documentary materials. Some readers may be reminded of WG Sebald’s use of photographs. Here, too, they are not of good quality, but they still add something to the narrative, to the documentation of the story.

I am reminded of Sebald’s description of Theresienstadt concentration camp In Austerlitz. The effect of Sebald’s description, written over many pages in one sentence, as here in Lost Children’s Archive, is to force you to stay with the prose. You can’t look away. You have to bear witness to the experiences of the children. 

She gives none of the family a name. This anonymity brings you closer to their relationships. And Valeria Luiselli writes the most stunning descriptions of the landscapes through which the family travel and search.

The effect of all of these devices is to draw together a dramatic story with both individual human relevance and immediacy, with a damning indictment of how children are treated in our world, especially when they are unwanted migrants.

Valeria Luiselli herself is originally from Mexico, but the migrant story is not hers, although she had served as a court translator for South American children seeking asylum in the US. She has written other novels, Faces in the CrowdThe Story of my Teeth, as well as collections of essays. but this is her first book in English.

Our small zoom meeting of the reading group agreed that this is an intense, relevant and strong novel.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli published in 2019. I read the paperback version from 4th Estate. 385pp. Longlisted for Women’s Prize and Booker Prize in 2019. 

Another post about books on refugee

Well-founded fear: a Themed Post about Refugees (from March 2021)

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