At the end of a long summer day, the children in the car’s backseat turn tetchy in their restlessness, growing a little beastly toward each other. Mostly, though, they are sweet allies with enough years between them — the girl is 5, the boy just turned 10 — to keep them from squabbling on this melancholy road trip.
As their family makes its sluggish way from New York City to the Southwest, the parents are less placid, their marriage crumbling. With the father at the wheel and the mother navigating, they can’t even agree on their exact destination. When they think the kids are asleep (the boy is his, the girl hers, though they’ve been raised to call each other siblings), they let themselves fight.
But most of the quarreling inside this boxy, aged Volvo, where readers spend much of Valeria Luiselli’s meticulously constructed, stultifyingly cerebral new novel, “Lost Children Archive,” feels like the author fighting with herself. Luiselli debates and foot-drags over how best to tell the story she really wants to tell — about lost migrant children at the US-Mexico border — and whether she has the right to.
Her principal narrator, the mother (nameless as are all the members of this family), is a radio journalist who was born in an unspecified other country. She has personal reasons for being drawn to the issue of the children, not least that a friend’s young daughters have disappeared on their own dangerous journey north: two girls in matching dresses, their mother’s American phone number embroidered on the collars. Yet the journalist is conflicted about her impulse to make the plight of kids like them into a public narrative.
To her, “it doesn’t seem right to turn those children, their lives, into material for media consumption. Why? What for? So that others can listen to them and feel — pity? Feel — rage? And then do what? No one decides to not go to work and start a hunger strike after listening to the radio in the morning.”
It’s an off-puttingly self-absorbed argument, but then again this narrator is generally alienating company: distant, emotionally anesthetized, and under the impression that “Lord of the Flies” is just the right audiobook to play for the captive young minds in the car. Granted, her husband — a sound artist whose work blends fact and fancy — apparently concurs.
Luiselli, the daughter of an ambassador, was born in Mexico City, grew up on several continents, and now lives in New York. Her 2017 nonfiction book, “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions,” is also about undocumented child migrants and was informed by her volunteer work as a court translator.
“Lost Children Archive,” which she started in 2014, is only partly about the current crisis at the border. Its bigger picture concerns an ongoing migration of much longer standing — the harrowing risks that vulnerable people take to live in this flawed and fractured country, and the xenophobia embedded in our history.
But as the family in “Lost Children Archive” drives toward what the husband calls Apacheria, the place where the Apaches lived before white people forced them out — and the site of his next project — you can see the author pulling strings. Every detail, including the children’s obsession with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and the boy’s retro birthday gift of a Polaroid camera, is part of Luiselli’s painstaking architecture. (Some of the shots the boy takes are included in the book.)
For its oxygen-starved first half, structure and literary complexity seem to be of greater interest to Luiselli than storytelling. She weaves in references to numerous other texts, some of which the family has brought along; she details the contents of the seven boxes in the Volvo’s trunk; she layers in a book within the book, about migrant children.
More than 160 pages in, around the spot where the boy says to his mother, “Can’t you just get to the point?,” desperation drove me to do something I’ve regarded with horror since childhood: I peeked at the ending.
The narrator of the final chapter is the boy, speaking to his sister in a clear, affectionate voice. Instead of spoiling the experience, it gave me something to hold onto as I went back and kept reading — because at last I knew the stakes of the story, and which characters I cared about: these two little kids, who if their parents split up will be ripped apart.
The boy’s perspective shapes the novel’s second half. As the trip morphs into an adventure starring him and his sister, who in their very American safety take needless, stupid risks, the layers and echoes in Luiselli’s prose deepen to beautiful, even magical effect. When the shadowy book within the book intersects with the siblings’ tale, we fleetingly get up close to the migrant children, who after all are just ordinary kids.
For the most part, though, their reality remains at a remove from us, as if Luiselli couldn’t fully persuade herself of her right to tell their story — to use her words to help us understand and, yes, feel.
Would that she had. Because great art, like great journalism, can in fact move people to action.
By Valeria Luiselli
Knopf, 383 pp., $27.95
Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.