Chair of the 2019 Booker Prize judges, Peter Florence, said:
“If you only read one book this year, make a leap. Read all 13 of these. There are Nobel candidates and debutants on this list. There are no favourites; they are all credible winners. They imagine our world, familiar from news cycle disaster and grievance, with wild humour, deep insight and a keen humanity. These writers offer joy and hope. They celebrate the rich complexity of English as a global language. They are exacting, enlightening and entertaining. Really – read all of them.”
The text is piecemeal; conversations repeat themselves or fail to resolve; details are omitted. It is littered with quoted fragments from Lord of the Fliesand the writings of Andrzejewski, Eliot, Pound, Rilke and Sontag. There is a set of stories within the story, called ‘Elegies for Lost Children’, written by an invention of Luiselli, an Italian writer named Ella Camposanto, that feature glimpses of migrant children leaping boxcars and crossing deserts. A sort of bibliography emerges, in the form of the inventories of the boxes the family have brought with them in the car. These contain transcripts of sound recordings, migrant mortality reports, maps, photographs and news clippings. When the narration is taken up by the boy, the effect of the changed voice is disorienting, and the careful work of the first half – the project, the politics – falls away as we slip into the mind of a child. Lost Children Archive isn’t an easy read. Nor, I suspect, does the author believe it should be – it is resistant, harrowing and highly allusive. Whether it meets the challenge Luiselli sets for herself I am not yet sure. It is nonetheless engrossing, a novel of great skill and certainty, even as it asks uncertain questions, ones to which it is becoming increasingly pressing that we find answers.
One of Lost Children Archive’s pleasures is its resemblance to the kind of collection that emerges when a dedicated mind is at work on the same problem over the course of years. Luiselli gives us the text and the metatext, and instead of being a contrived poststructuralist irritation, the approach feels elegant and generous. She has left us the paper trail.
Luiselli has created an extraordinary allegory of this country’s current crisis of self-concept: What do America’s borders mean now?
Luiselli is an ambitious writer. Her previous novels, including The Story of My Teeth, were full of playful formal experiment. Here there are two main narrators, the woman and the boy. Their accounts are dovetailed, each giving a distinct view of identical episodes, each split into short sections with matching subheadings...But for all its cleverness, this is also a warm and funny novel, equally droll in its treatment of the precocious, anxious children and its mockery of the solipsistic adults who are so careless of them... It recalls WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, another book in which fact and fiction seemed to be changing places. Lost Children Archive, in its seriousness and beguiling oddity, is a welcome addition to the Sebaldian genre.
Lost Children Archive is, in short, probably not a beach read. There are musings on Ezra Pound and Susan Sontag and anxious deliberations on whether anyone has a right to tell others’ stories. The narrative structure is difficult, the language sometimes clunky. But then Luiselli dazzles with a poetic description, or a trenchant observation about the power and danger of stories. And the motivating crisis — those thousands of unaccompanied, “undocumented” children — forces itself through with moving insistence.
Fittingly, in a book so preoccupied with sound, author Valeria Luiselli tunes our ear for echoes between its different threads...Luiselli’s experience as a volunteer interpreter in a New York City federal immigration court informed her 2017 non-fiction work, Tell Me How it Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Urgent facts and poignant details are carried across into Lost Children Archive, which is in many ways a fictional elaboration of this previous book. In retelling this story — dazzlingly, compellingly — again and again, Luiselli urges her readers towards a common humanity.
The novel’s formal experimentation and documentary inclusiveness, running, at the end, to a series of Polaroid snapshots, along with the narrator’s often fascinating digressions, on the pleasures of reading Susan Sontag’s journals, for example, make Lost Children Archive an involving and richly textured book. In the last part, two more narrative strands are woven into the tapestry: extracts from a fictitious book that the narrator is reading, which recounts in haunting, poetic language the desperate journey of child migrants across an unnamed land of desert and jungle; and a first-person narrative by the 10-year-old son in which he tells what happens to the family as they finally approach the southern border.
In the end, Lost Children Archive runs out of steam and has to change tack, switching perspective to the narrator’s son as he plans to run away, as if becoming a lost child himself might make him more interesting to his mother... The episode might have fuelled the novel all by itself, but in selling this very different story in the shape of another, Luiselli, almost despite herself, seems to fall into the trap of thinking the personal isn’t political enough
As a Mexican author and a former interpreter, Luiselli possesses an invaluable perspective. She has an international and therefore long view on politics, which ensures that Lost Children Archive feels just as timeless as it is pertinent. “Lost” has multiple meanings, each more painful and resonant than the last... Lost Children Archive doesn’t fail for succeeding—beautiful writing is still beautiful writing—but the unintentional result is that the experimentation in form, switching from a kind of journaling to the more intimate firsthand account of a 10-year-old boy, can come off as oddly detached.
As I was reading the English-language debut of Mexican writer Luiselli, the news was full of the migrant caravan arriving at the US-Mexico border. This richly layered novel begins with a couple who are falling out of love and leave New York with their kids to drive south-west to Apercheria. Interwoven with this story is a thread inspired by the author's work in New York courts, translating for children recently arrived in the US from Central America, as she imagines the journey of migrant children heading in the opposite direction. A novel that speaks powerfully to our times.