Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City and who grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India and now lives in New York City, may be as difficult to categorize as this novel. I’m not too bothered about notions of genre. I often think that the categories are more for marketing purposes than literary ones, but if I am going to recommend a book – and I am certainly going to recommend this one (so does the New York Times, which named it one of the 10 Best Books of 2019) – I think it’s important to be able to describe what potential readers will experience.
On one level, it’s the story of a blended family struggling to keep itself together as the parents try to figure out how to balance their related but differing professional ambitions. To explore these ambitions, they go on what is very definitely a staple of literary subgenres, a road trip. What could be more American? The mother’s goal for the trip is to find two lost children, the result of a promise she made to a woman back in New York. The girls are ‘lost children’ and not refugees because she’s had to explain the notion of refugees to her daughter, 5, and her husband’s son, 10, as lost children because the notion of a refugee is too difficult to convey. (And I am not being coy by not naming the characters. Luiselli does not give them names.)
Luiselli’s decision to make her novel difficult to classify seems, at first, to be at odds with the professions of the two parents – who are dedicated if not obsessive archivists of slightly but importantly (to them) different kinds. He records sounds, often echoes, and is on a quest to visit the lands where the Apaches roamed. She is a more traditional narrative journalist. Luiselli reinforces their compulsiveness by providing itemized lists of what is contained in each of the boxes they packed for the trip. Their obsession with their work and between their different approaches introduces the initial tension between them and then, we soon find, between them and their children. When the boy takes over the narration, we learn just how deeply all of this is impacting him.
Thanks to a gift of a Polaroid camera, he becomes an archivist of his own sort and intends to combine the approaches of both of his parents. This leads to one of the most meaningful pieces of documentation in the whole book, a photograph he takes in a cemetery. In his quest to keep his family together, he makes a decision and because his sister is devoted to him, she joins him in his efforts. Elements of the boy’s narration strained credibility at times, so I was glad to find that Luiselli kept it short. That said, it does lead to another of the most remarkable set pieces in the novel – an encounter between the two siblings and four lost children in an abandoned train car.
Though I have not read it yet, I am told Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, serves as an excellent companion to this novel. It’s based on the time she spent working as an interpreter for Central American children seeking to migrate to the U.S.. The 40 questions in the subtitle correspond to the 40 questions the children must answer to help immigration authorities determine their fate. I wonder if the immigration authorities are familiar with the Biblical significance of the number 40, It was, for example, 40 days between the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension. After escaping from Egypt, Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. There are many other examples. I am sure the symbolism of this coincidence is not lost on Luiselli.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.