LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE by Valeria Luiselli

From the Jacket

A mother and father set out with their two children, a boy and a girl, driving from New York to Arizona in the heat of summer.  Their destination: Apacheria, the place the Apaches once called home.  Why Apaches? asks the ten-year-old son.  Because they were the last of something, answers his father.

In their car, they play games and sing along to music.  But on the radio, there is news about an “immigration crisis”: thousands of kids trying to cross the southwestern border into the United States, but getting detained–or lost in the desert along the way.  As the family drives–through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas–we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own.  A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can almost feel beneath their feet.  They are led, inexorably, to a grand, harrowing adventure–both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.

My Thoughts

There is so much prestige surrounding LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE that it’s no surprise it took me months to pick it up.  I’m always nervous to read heavily praised, acknowledged books because I feel enormous pressure to love them as much as the literati.  So, generally, it takes me a while to start reading them in the first place and also to finish them once I start.  Such was my experience with Valeria Luiselli’s LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, a 2019 longlistee for both the Booker and the Women’s Prize.

“Stories are a way of subtracting the future from the past, the only way of finding clarity in hindsight.”

On the whole I feel quite ambivalent toward LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE.  At times it is utterly brilliant, but more often than not it is a chore to get through.  I respect Luiselli’s message–the novel focuses on the child refugee crisis at the American/Mexican border–but stylistically the novel feels cold and distant.  ARCHIVE is certainly well-crafted; it is broken up into beautiful vignettes and written with polished, perceptive prose.  However, I found it near impossible to connect with the characters and therefore difficult to care for the crises at hand.  The refugee crisis is one I already deeply cared about before my exposure to Luiselli’s novel, but I believe if I were more invested in Ma’s narrative, I would have cared more for her perspective on the Mexican-American border problem.

“The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day, the other can suddenly become a stranger.”

It’s always hardest to write about “okay” books, those that I admire but don’t love.  Luiselli’s LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE is exactly that.  I admire the way she writes on the refugee crisis, through the perspective of a disconnected family traveling cross-country, a Ma and Pa with their own lost children, a boy and girl.  I love Luiselli’s commentary on documentation and our obsession with recording, as well as the relationship between documenting and reenacting.  But even with so much to love and admire, and with such an important message regarding a real-world, present-day problem, LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE with its narrative distance was a slight disappoint for me.

Further Reading

“Valeria Luiselli’s ‘Lost Children Archive’ is a Road Trip Novel about the Border and Its Ghosts” by Javier Zamora, Electric Literature
“The Sounds of Exile” by Lori Feathers, Los Angeles Review of Books
“Valeria Luiselli Discusses Migrant Children and Other Lost Souls” by Luisa Rollenhagen, Vulture

10 Comments

  1. Rachel

    I felt the exact same about this book – admired it, didn’t love it. I do think it’s technically a very impressive book so it probably deserved to be shortlisted for either the WP or the Booker, so it’s a shame it seems permanently relegated to longlists everywhere, but personally I found it difficult to get invested in the characters or the narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Literary Elephant

    Ah, I liked this one a bit better I think, but I can completely see where you’re coming from with admiring but not necessarily enjoying it. It is very…. structured. I’m glad you admired it, at least! LCA also led me to recently pick up Luiselli’s little nonfiction book called Tell Me How it Ends, which is about Luiselli’s personal experience with the border crisis, which I found even more poignant and effective. Definitely worth checking out if you’re interested!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hannah and Her Books

      I’m very interested in Tell Me How It Ends! I’ve heard from a few people that her nonfiction soars whereas her fiction only attempts to do so, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her essay(s). I’m still glad I read it, just wish I would’ve liked it more!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Literary Elephant

        I can agree with that fiction/nonfiction comparison! While reading the essay, it became very apparent that the mother in LCA, at least in her reactions to the border crisis, is very much based off of Luiselli’s own reactions and opinions; the first person direct account in the nonfiction just really helps her perspective shine through and bring home the points she wants to make more openly. I haven’t had a chance to review it yet, but am looking forward to posting about it because I thought it was just superb!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hannah and Her Books

        That’s great to hear! Last week I heard Luiselli speak about her book and she said she took a road trip with her family across the states much like the one her characters take, and it became really clear that “Ma” is inspired by her, and the girl by her own daughter. (I recapped the event in my latest post!) And the writing she did on the journey turned into Tell Me How It Ends, which further inspired LCA! So now I’m especially interested in the essay, and hoping I’ll connect more with the direct account.

        Liked by 1 person

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