“Lost Children Archive” must have one of the most unusual structures for a novel that I’ve read in a long time. It seems natural that Valeria Luiselli’s first novel written in English would chiefly concern the plight of immigrant children as her extended essay “Tell Me How It Ends” so powerfully laid out this harrowing dilemma. Since politicians often turn immigration into an abstract political debate, Luiselli has a tremendous ability for highlighting and reminding us how this is above all a human rights issue and makes us see the humans effect. The ramifications for children who are adrift and literally wandering blindly through this landscape with stringently guarded borders are incalculable because when they become lost in a political system “They are children who have lost the right to a childhood.” In this novel she expands this understanding and creates an artful story which traverses time and space to illuminate a new way of looking at what happens when our society loses its children.
At its centre, this is a road trip novel about a husband and wife driving with their son and daughter across America. They’re engaged in a project to capture and record the sounds of the country to better understand its nature of being. The couple’s relationship is also disintegrating and the closer they come to their destination the closer this family comes to separating. What begins as a deeply-felt intellectual reflection about the ways we negotiate children’s place in our lives turns into a tense search for those who have gone missing with hallucinatory twists. It sounds confusing and I’m still puzzling over the experience of it, but this innovative novel shines with so much humanity I found it utterly compelling and engaging.
Luiselli writes endearingly about private moments of family life – especially when confined in the restricted space of a car for most of the day. There are funny moments which take the mother out of her brooding and serious concern: “Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes.” It’s interesting how there’s a sense that this family is somewhat new to each other since both the father’s son and the mother’s daughter are children from previous relationships, but their bond and connection to each other is so strong. There is also a constant feeling of their anonymity since none of these family members are named (except for the girl who is nicknamed Memphis by the son when they pass through the Tennessee city.) The mother who narrates the first half of the book frequently makes up stories about their lives to tell the strangers they meet amidst their journey. So all these aspects of the book build a sense that they are both everyone and no one belonging everywhere and nowhere.
One of the ways the parents try to entertain (and distract) the children during their long car rides is to play an audio book of “Lord of the Flies”. The narrative of Golding’s tremendous novel has a powerful effect on the son who takes the story’s messages about struggle and survival to heart. But it also shows how Luiselli is forming a dialogue with the narratives of classic stories to come to a new understanding of how we structure society and the core values that should serve as the base of its foundations. “Lost Children Archive” additionally references and converses with the ideas of writers such as Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac and Susan Sontag. There’s also a fictional book called “Elegies for Lost Children” in the mother’s possession which she reads aloud from and it’s quoted from at length in the novel itself. It’s the story of a band of children’s struggle to arrive at a new home while riding atop dangerous trains and being led by tyrannical guides.
These stories are narrated aloud and they meld with radio news they listen to about the growing Mexican-American border crisis and reports of undocumented migrant children being flown out of the country. The mother is particularly preoccupied with these children’s futures, but the father is more concerned with the past as their ultimate destination is the southwest where he wants to search for any lingering sounds of decimated Native American tribes. In a sense the parents are tragically outside of the present and their anxiety over how to document the experiences of these displaced people reflect a general feeling that “Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we all can feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently… We haven’t understood how space and time exist now, how we really experience them. And until we find a way to document them, we will not understand them.” Equipped only with their instincts and some boxes of scattered maps, books and tools, the family are on a quest to learn how to capture this experience of the present. Until then, their ultimate endpoint and sense of home remains perilously uncertain – just as it does for all of us.
This is an absolutely fascinating, clever and complex novel which takes seriously the personal impact of politics and gives a new way of looking at the bonds of family.