Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: Recording and bearing witness

Cover imageThis is the first book written in English by Valeria Luiselli and I’m delighted to say it’s been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve read only one of her novels, The Story of My Teeth, which I loved but which I gather isn’t typical of her work. Lost Children Archive is a response to the journeys made through the most dangerous terrain by those hoping to find their way across the Mexican border into the United States, many of them unaccompanied children. It explores the story of these children through one family who are travelling from New York to Arizona, their future uncertain.

Two unnamed parents set off from New York city with their children – his ten-year-old son and her five-year-old daughter – each with different projects to pursue when they reach their destination. They are both archivists of a kind, recording soundscapes as a way of exploring stories, but each has a very different approach. Their marriage is foundering, their future undecided although he intends to stay in Arizona documenting the Apache nation while she plans to record what is happening to migrant children, spurred on by her friend’s plea to look for her two daughters. As they cross the country, the children entertain themselves playing games reflecting what they hear on the radio, the audiobooks their mother has selected and the Apache stories their father tells them. They stop in motels where the parents fight quietly, convincing themselves their children can’t hear. The closer they come to the border, the more they hear about the migrant children, many about to be deported. Aware of his parents’ unhappiness, the boy decides to take action in the hope of bringing his parents back together.

Where to start with this immensely ambitious, contemplative novel? It begins from the mother’s perspective then switches to the son’s whose narrative echoes the structure of his mother’s. Each of their accounts is rich in literary allusion: the mother reads from Elegies for Lost Children, a book apparently based on the Children’s Crusade echoing the migrant children’s journeys and itself stuffed with literary references, which the son takes up. There’s a useful list of works cited in the back if, like me, you’re not as formidably erudite as Luiselli which helps elucidate many of these allusions. There are stories within stories throughout this novel but at the heart of them all are lost children, the way that they are failed, sometimes cruelly, and the necessity both of recording their fate and of bearing witness to it. It’s far from an easy read – there’s a long dense passage with little in the way of punctuation that almost defeated me – but it’s both thoughtful and thought-provoking. A humane and at times beautiful response to a desperate global problem.

19 thoughts on “Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: Recording and bearing witness”

  1. I’ve just got hold of a copy of this after reading a rave review over the weekend. I suspect yours is more honest, especially about it not being an easy read. I think it will have to wait until I am feeling a bit stronger.

    1. It does need your full attention, Ann, and it’s harrowing at times. That said, it’s well worth the concentration required. Luiselli’s writing is often lyrically beautiful.

  2. I’ve read some of her essays so I’m familiar with the meandering philosophical style, I am intrigued to see how she takes on the novel form; it seems as if she retains some of the style of her essays but uses the journey of a family as the thread that ties them together, and the immense effect on the author of those personal experiences with asylum seeking children and families, within the context of the political situation.

    1. Yes, I had the impression that it was much closer to her essays in nature, Claire. It’s a richly contemplative book, both articulate and heartfelt. Highly relevant given current world events.

  3. I like the sound of this, especially as it retains something of the style of Luiselli’s essays (which I love). How interesting to see that she has written it in English, that’s very impressive!

  4. This sounds like an important read and one can see why it was picked for the WPFF. I’ll definitely be giving it a try some time.

  5. I have spent the last few days looking up the books on the women’s prize longlist that I didn’t already know something about. I really like the sound of this one, not surprised to hear it’s not an easy read. I would probably need to be in a strong frame of mind to tackle it though.

    1. It’s a book that repays some quiet uninterrupted reading time. It is harrowing at times but such an important, heartfelt response to what has become a worldwide crisis.

  6. This sounds interesting… but will I read it? I’d like to think so but unlikely. I struggle with books that require a chunk of concentrated reading time in order to get into them – I rarely have that luxury and probably miss out on some challenging but rewarding books as a result.

  7. I’ve just finished this. It’s certainly quite a complex book, both in construction and thematically. Luckily I’m going to hear her speak later this month so I hope I will feel more enlightened afterwards!

  8. Pingback: The Rathbones Folio Prize: Thoughts on the Shortlist – Annabookbel

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