in review: Lost Children Archive

Photo courtesy of  Goodreads

Photo courtesy of Goodreads

 

Lost Children Archive
by Valeria Luiselli
Publication Date: February 12, 2019
Publisher: Knopf

 

Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive might be considered a fictional sequel to her 2017 tour-de-force, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, which borrows the form of a court intake questionnaire to confront the plight of undocumented Latin American migrant children facing deportation in the United States. Like that slim volume, Luiselli’s latest novel asks how we tell the awful story of these children, and, just as importantly, who should do the telling. But common subject matter aside, Lost Children Archive far eclipses Tell Me How It Ends in both style and substance, and is spiritually more akin to Luiselli’s debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, particularly for the way it captures the perspectives and terrible realities of children in an adult world, which is a strength of hers and is, after all, the point.

Lost Children Archive is the story of a family—a husband and wife with a 10-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, respectively, from previous relationships—driving from their home in New York City to the Arizona-Mexico border. The parents are audio documentarians: they make soundscapes, and they are heading for the ancestral home of the Apaches so the father (no one in the family has a name) can record whatever traces of the tribe remain. The mother plans to do the same with regard to the many children who have died crossing the border, while also looking for the missing—and undocumented—daughters of a friend (a bit of real life, injected from Tell Me How It Ends). Along the way, the radio chatter about the “immigration crisis” worsens, the couple grows distant, and, ultimately, hoping to reclaim their parents’ attention from their all-consuming work, the children decide to run away into the desert, becoming “lost children” themselves.

The book is arranged in four parts, featuring seven “Boxes,” which are both chapters of a sort and physical containers in the car with the family, a traveling archive holding all manner of documents and ephemera related to their journey. The text itself, like Luiselli’s previous work, is essayistic, with breezy and sometimes repeating section headers: “Foundational Myths,” “Alone Together,” “Time,” etc. Allusions and references abound, as Luiselli, who holds a PhD in comparative literature from Columbia, wears her intellectual proclivities on her sleeve. (Like any good dissertation, the book has a Works Cited section, in which the author makes no bones about it: “Like my previous work, ‘Lost Children Archive’ is in part the result of a dialogue with many different texts, as well as with other nontextual sources.”)

At times, the narrator’s (and the author’s) self-awareness takes up a bit too much of the spotlight. You can almost see her at the podium, part of a university symposium on, say, documentary ethics, such as when she shows the boy how to use a camera and suggests he take a picture of a tree:

 

Why would I do that?

I don’t know why—just to document it, I guess.

That doesn’t even mean anything, Ma, document it.

He’s right. What does it mean to document something, an object, our lives, a story? I suppose that documenting things—through the lens of a camera, on paper, or with a sound recording device—is really only a way of contributing one more layer, something like soot, to all the things already sedimented in a collective understanding of the world.  

Luiselli’s tendencies are forgivable, though, because if she is an inveterate academic, she is also an inveterate experimenter with form, which keeps things engrossing. Case in point: the finale, a multiple-streams-of consciousness roar written as a single sentence that lasts twenty pages.

Above all, Luiselli’s clear-eyed and persistent questioning—What’s our place in the suffering of others? How to tell the story of the migrant children? Who to do it?—elevates the book. Even if the narrator is right and documenting is only contributing one more layer to our collective understanding, it can still be a sincere labor of love. And that’s license enough for anyone, especially a writer as brilliant as Luiselli, to tell the story.

—Paul Stinson