The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Title: The Lost Children Archive
Author: Valeria Luiselli
Genre: Contemporary Literary Fiction
Topics: Family, Archiving, Children refugees
Triggers: Some violence against children
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publishing Year: 2019
Format Read: Hardcover (Library)
My Rating: 4/5
Two of the benchmarks that I use to judge if I think a book is “good” are whether or not the writing elicits an emotional reaction in me while I am reading it and whether or not it sticks in my brain long after I have tuned the last page. By both of these metrics, Lost Children Archive is an excellent novel. Beyond this however Lost Children Archive defies easy categorization both in it’s storytelling methods and the messages it conveys to the reader. There are so many layers to unpack, angles to explore and mull over that I still feel like I haven’t completely finished processing it. Lost Children Archives does not shy away from heavy and complex issues from the private (the disintegration of a family) to the international (the migration of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the United States) nor does it shy away from ambiguity, offering no easy answers to these topics. The topics and writing are challenging. This is an unsettling yet beautiful book that makes us question ourselves, and our values while also showing off Luiselli’s incredible talent as a writer.
Summary: A mother and father set out with their kids from New York to Arizona. In their used Volvo--and with their ten-year-old son trying out his new Polaroid camera--the family is heading for the Apacheria: the region the Apaches once called home, and where the ghosts of Geronimo and Cochise might still linger. The father, a sound documentarist, hopes to gather an "inventory of echoes" from this historic, mythic place. The mother, a radio journalist, becomes consumed by the news she hears on the car radio, about the thousands of children trying to reach America but getting stranded at the southern border, held in detention centers, or being sent back to their homelands, to an unknown fate.
But as the family drives farther west--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 feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, unforgettable adventure--both in the harsh desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.
At its most basic level, this book is a road trip novel through the heart of America, however Luiselli manages to pack so much into the pages of her novel. There are three parallel and rotating stories that seem to interweave with each other but never quite fully meet. The main two main PoV’s, the mother’s and the oldest child’s frame the story while a third story line following a pair of siblings migrating to the US underlies the whole narrative. Central to all three perspectives is the idea of archiving and preserving; we get detailed lists of items that the family carries with them on their road trip and Polaroids taken along the way. The book itself is structures like an archive; paragraphs are labels and the books is separated into “boxes” which I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in fiction before.
Apart from this unique meta-structure, there are various elements within the narrative that create a kind of tension that make for an interesting reading experience. For example The central characters are not named and are simply being referred to as “The mother” or “the boy”. This, along with the first person narrative makes it easier to slip into the character’s shoes and personalize the story. At the same time the book is very conscious about the tension between reality, the recording of such a reality, and its subsequent consumption via different mediums (like photographs, books and audio recording). It is a lot of stuff to unpack and could have easily gotten out of hand in the hands of a less organized writer, however Luiselli’s careful writing never makes it feel like it’s too much and instead produces a reading experience that is meticulous (you get the impression that every word has been carefully chosen and researched) yet almost dreamlike in it’s easy fluidity.The overall reading experience for me was a deeply felt one and which was further heightened by Luiselli’s prose. Her writing reverberates with a quiet strength that slowly builds tension and culminates in a heart pounding can’t-put-it-down ending.
I do however, I acknowledge that this book might not be for everyone. I read this book at the right time and place for me personally and I connected with the story and characters. But I could also see how this book might not work for all readers. I think that whether you enjoy this book or not might depending on the writing style you prefer. I feel that at times, especially with literary fiction where the style of the prose calls attention to itself (and this books certainly does) it can rub readers the wrong way and prevent them from fully enjoying the story. The line is between “genius” and “ artsy and trying too hard” is different for everyone and can vary from author to author and even book to book. I’ve had many discussions with fellow book friends about which beloved modern literary fiction novels fell into each category for me. If you are not a fan of non-linear plotting or uncertainty and moral ambiguity this one might not be for you. If you are a fan if exploring experimental ways to record and tell stories in different ways this one will definitely interest you.
Personally, this book did work for me. I suspect that this has a lot to do with the head space that I was when I read Lost Children Archive. I have been thinking and reading a lot about immigration, story telling and family dynamics all of which are address in this book. I would be interested in re-reading this book and seeing how my respond to it changes in the future as this is a novel that needs to be chewed and digested thoroughly and that offers no easy answers. To be perfectly honest, this review was hard to write as I feel that if I tried to unpack and explore every aspect of this book at it would end up being 15 pages long and probably not very coherent or helpful. So I will try to best sum up my thoughts with: if you are looking for a beautiful, complex, and challenging book to sink your teeth into, Lost Children Archive is a must.
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