A few days before leaving on our vacation to Mexico City, my girlfriend and I began to wonder if we needed visas to enter the country. We are anxious people, but also privileged ones. A quick Google search dispelled our worries. In the final days of 2018, there were troops gathering at the border, but it wasn’t us they were concerned with.
On the plane, with a little blue passport representing a wealth far exceeding the $110 application fee tucked into my backpack, I began to read Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. Through the window, I could spot the moment land becomes water, when the bright lights of the city fade into the darkness of unpopulated land, where fields gave way to mountains, but not the division between one country and the next. This crossing that I was about to make—at this height, a line on the map more than a sign on the land—is the very thing that concerns Luiselli’s writing.
The first two novels by Luiselli, a Mexican writer living in New York City and writing in Spanish, straddle the US/Mexico border. Her trim debut Faces in the Crowd centers on an expecting Mexican mother living in her home country and recounting her days working for a publishing house in New York City, her memory carrying her across the border. For her second, more experimental novel, The Story of My Teeth, she mailed her words to a group of Mexican factory workers, who sent back their reactions and helped her create a narrative that straddled the border.
Now there is her third novel, her first written in English: Lost Children Archive, an expansive, meditative novel that attempts to document the echoes that reverberate out from the wound of the border. One precocious family—Mother, Father, Memphis, and Swift Feather—sets out on a mostly uneventful road trip from New York to Arizona, former home of the Apache, whose mythologized history gives the children their nicknames. The two unnamed parents are sound documentarians employed to record everything from the languages of New York City to the silences of the child migration crisis, a profession that both stretches the limits of plausibility and provides Luiselli with fertile ground for philosophical exploration. Can one truly be undocumented if one’s life leaves a record? How does what we choose to document dictate whose lives matter?
Sound is not the only thing the family documents. Each person brings along bankers boxes to store books, monographs, Polaroids, and artifacts from the trip. In this way, the novel becomes its own archival box, filled with careful study of the artifacts its characters choose to hang on to. Quotes and extracts from these texts find their way from the characters’ mouths into the very fabric of the novel, allowing these boxes to not just contain each person’s life, but to also make sense of their lived experience.
One outside text looms larger than the rest: Elegies for Lost Children, a novel of Luiselli’s own imagining, created by patching together other pieces of writing in a set of referential nesting dolls. While the family drives across the country and passes the time with esoteric conversations about the difference between being a “documentarian” and a “documentarist,” the moments when they read aloud from this novel bring a vivid contrast to their placid lives. The invented novel paints a horrifyingly vivid picture of child migrants riding the top of the train, la bestia, through unrelenting peril—thieves, the harsh elements, the unrelenting grind of the train wheels. This portrait makes clear that anyone would only choose this journey for their children if the circumstances at home were even more perilous, and arrival should be a victory, not cause for further punishment.
Luiselli’s novel, and the novel within the novel, are so carefully constructed that it begins to echo and rhyme. A surprising shift in the narration creates a resonant repetition that further interrogates whose perspectives are privileged in traditional storytelling. But this deep attention to structure holds the reader at a distance, putting calculated parallels ahead of its characters’ emotional journeys. If the novel is a set of nesting dolls, the reader begins to suspect there may not be a heartbeat pulsing at its center.
One of the rare places where the novel has an emotional spark is in its depiction of what Luiselli calls “the savage daily ritual of being married.” As Mother and Father’s paths begin to diverge along their route, each feeling lonely and estranged, the novel opens out to explore not just national belonging, but also marital and familial belonging.
Lost Children Archive is a novel written with the eye of an essayist, each moment dissected rather than lived. It’s like a road trip in its own right, meandering, sometimes filled with absorbing, delicious conversation, sometimes haunted by the nagging question, How much further to the end? I can revel at the beauty and rigor of its construction. In an era when the possibility of a border wall brings the government to a grinding halt and child migrants are dying at border detention centers, the novel is no doubt timely, but it leaves me right where I started: wondering how we will find our way out of this mess.
The unnamed characters and the setup of the novel call to mind Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, Luiselli’s book-length essay on the child migrant crisis that weaves together her experience as a volunteer interpreter for asylum seekers and the road trip her own family took as they waited for her green card to arrive in the mail. If you want to feel a call to arms, read Tell Me How It Ends, an essay that carries you along with the beating pulse of its urgency.