Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli consists of several threads woven intermittently throughout the narrative to form a complex tapestry. The narrative unfolds within the backdrop of a blended family’s road trip from New York to Apacheria, Arizona.
The blended family consists of the narrator, her five-year old daughter, her husband, and his ten-year old son. The parents are archivists. The father documents the sounds along the way to capture an “inventory of echoes” of the land once inhabited by Apaches and, presumably, where their ghosts still reside. The mother, the narrator of the first half of the novel, focuses on documenting the harrowing journey and fate of migrant children entering the US to re-unite with family members.
Peppering the mother’s first-person narrative are the father’s stories of the heroism of the Apaches in their struggle against the Europeans, focusing on the life and death of Geronimo; intermittent news reports of migrant children held in detention centers and/or shuttled back across the border to an unknown fate; the desperate search for two sisters missing from a detention center; selections from the deeply moving Elegies for Lost Children about the traumatic journey of migrant children; her private musings on a wealth of subjects; her struggles with the apparent breakdown of her marriage; her children’s questions and interruptions; descriptions of the various locations and motels; her son’s Polaroids; and copious literary cross-references. The porous nature of her skin is evident as the rage and despair she feels at the fate of migrant children saturates her first-person narrative.
The second half of the book shifts to the first-person narrative of the son when he and his sister run away to search for the lost children. In the process, they replicate some of the experiences of migrant children. When the family is reunited, he presents the document of his experience to his mother to remind his little sister of their desert adventure. This section is gripping although the diction and thoughts may, at times, be too sophisticated for a ten-year old child, especially sections of a sentence that runs on breathlessly for twenty pages.
Luiselli has written an ambitious, complex novel with the interlocking themes of the treatment and fate of migrant children; the nature of justice and equality; the challenges of parenting and marriage; the role of storytelling; and the role of the archivist, specifically, how to give voice to those whose voices have been lost forever. She blends the personal, the political, the historical, and the mythic with empathy and sensitivity.
This is a deeply moving novel with a complex structure and several intertwining threads. And there’s the rub. Luiselli may have crammed too much in the novel, thereby causing confusion and diluting some of its more salient threads. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended because of its expansive vision, deeply expressed emotions, exploration of relevant themes, technical skill, and the occasional brilliant passage.