If you inhabit the same neck of the Twitter woods I do, you may have spotted Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt some time ago. It’s one of those books that’s been trailed for many months which usually presses my sceptical button but I have to say it’s the real deal. This extraordinary novel explores the theme of migration through the journey of Lydia and her son Luca who are fleeing Acapulco’s most powerful drug lord after escaping the massacre of their family.
Lydia is a bookseller who knows she must stock the books she doesn’t like in order to sell a few copies of those she loves. One day, a smartly turned out customer buys two of her favourites, engaging her in conversation. He becomes a regular and a friendship begins. Lydia is used to a degree of danger. She lives in one of Mexico’s most violent cities where shootings and elaborately mutilated corpses are commonplace. Her husband is a journalist, a profession whose members are regularly picked off by narcos. When he tells her about his latest piece, she understands that the suave, cultured Javier she thinks of as her friend is the subject of Sebastián’s profile. This is the man who orders the murder of sixteen members of Lydia’s family after the publication of the piece, a massacre that she and eight-year-old Luca escape by pure chance. They have no choice but to smother their grief and flee. There will be no help from the police, many of whom are in the pay of the cartels. Their only option is to head to the US in the hope of finding Lydia’s uncle who left years ago and has not been heard of since. As they head north, Lydia and Luca meet many migrants like themselves, jumping the tracks onto la bestia, the freight train that runs to the border.
Cummins’ quietly understated, immersive novel is both gripping and deeply moving. The stories of the other migrants they meet along the way, from Rebeca and Soldad whose beauty will cost them dear to Marisol whose teenage daughters were born in San Diego, are woven through Lydia and Luca’s as they adapt to life on the run. Both mother and son are strikingly well portrayed – Lydia resourceful and wary of everyone she meets, Luca, endearingly brave and empathetic despite the horrors that have been visited upon him. We come to know them intimately and to care deeply about what happens to them. The everyday atrocities perpetrated by the narcos are described in clean, plain language making them all the more shocking. Corruption, treachery and exploitation are common amongst migrants and officials, alike, yet set against this are the many small kindnesses of ordinary people, often putting their own safety at risk. Despite its unsparing realism, Cummins’ novel is not without hope: For every wickedness, there is an equal and opposite possibility of redemption thinks Lydia when faced with yet another tale of depravity. It’s an astonishingly powerful book. Films often make my cry, books not so much: American Dirt is an exception. More immediate than Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, it feels written from the heart.
Tinder Press: London 2020 9781472261380 480 pages Hardback