‘ Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli


2019, 400 p.

Hailed as “a vital work for the Trump era”, Lost Children Archive is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction essay Tell Me How It Ends. In both her essay and this novel, there is a road-trip across the states of America: a genre familiar to Australian readers through American film and television and explored in our own films (think Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and literature (think perhaps Rabbit Proof Fence, and most recently Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View). Both Luiselli’s essay and the novel are concerned with the fate of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into America, an issue thrown into the author’s own personal spotlight after volunteering to act as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking entry to the U.S. and writ large by Trump’s mantra of Building the Wall.  The essay Tell Me How It Ends was named for her daughter’s pleading to know how the story of these unaccompanied children ends, and already the crossover between the fictional and nonfictional works is blurred. It combines the personal and the political, and among other things, is about story-telling and story tellers.

The Lost Children Archive has resonances of W. E. Sebald’s work, with its integration of photographs and documents. The narrative is structured as an archive in itself. The book is divided into four parts. Its chapters reflect seven archive boxes that stowed in the boot of a car that is carrying an unnamed woman and her husband, and their two children, across the southern border of the US. The two children are not related by blood, each coming from their parent’s previous relationship, but they are considered “our” children and despite (and perhaps because of?) the difference of five years in their ages (10 and 5) they are very close. Sitting in the back seat of the car, day after day, the older boy in particular is aware of the tension between his father and his step-sister’s mother. They had met during a project to document the soundscapes of New York, he as a sound engineer and she as a journalist/producer, or as they distinguish it, one a documentarian, the other a documentarist.  The father wants to embark on a project capturing the lost sounds of the removal of Geronimo and the Apaches, while the mother has been drawn into looking for two little girls sent across the border with only a phone-number written onto the collar of their dresses. The son is aware, without being told, that this will be their last trip together as a family and he and his stepsister decide to run away and become like the lost children that Mama is so driven to find.

The first half of the book is narrated by the mother, and it comes as a surprise to have the narration taken over by her son half way through, and to revisit events and conversations from his perspective. Each section starts with an inventory of one of the boxes, listing  the books and articles, maps and CDs that have been gathered together, and the book itself ends with a series of Polaroid photographs that have – supposedly?- been taken on the trip.

This is a very clever, self-aware book that echoes influences as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and David Bowie’ Space Oddity. There is a long, twenty-page sentence near the end of the book that echoes Molly Bloom in Ulysses. A type of bibliography at the end references the resonances in the book, not direct quotations, many of which are translations of translations. Such reflexivity could be clunky and derivative in clumsier hands, but it’s not: it’s confident and deliberate, and a book of the heart and head.  All of my mental contortions that I’ve had  about a narrator inserting herself into the text dissolve here, with her very clear sense of what she is doing as a creator in a piece of autofiction , as distinct from memoir. As soon as I started reading it, I knew that I was in the hands of a very talented, intelligent writer. It’s been ages since I enjoyed a book as much.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

3 responses to “‘ Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

  1. Sounds great – not many writers do Joyce well!
    Oz road movies: there’s one from Footscray CIrcus School to Perth – can’t locate the name; The Goddess of 1967 (about Japanese guys buying a Citroen), which leads to Japanese Story (I saw some of the filming in the Pilbara) and thence to Road to Nhill. Lovely films all. Can’t think of any more.

  2. I read her Faces in the crowd a few years ago and was impressed. This sounds well worth reading – particularly given the topic.

    We have a few road novels as well as road movies, including classics like Eve Langley’s The pea-pickers, and D’Arcy Niland’s The shiralee.

  3. Another book I’ve now added to my Library list. I’m intrigued. Thank you for sharing.

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