VALERIA LUISELLI’S Lost Children Archive begins with a departure, a family road trip from New York City to rural Arizona for a husband, wife, and two children: the husband’s 10-year-old son and the wife’s five-year-old daughter, characters whose given names remain unknown to the reader. The couple met four years prior as members of a team tasked with inventorying the city’s sounds; he is an acoustemologist, she is a political journalist, and the two spent months together recording the hundreds of minority languages spoken in homes and workplaces throughout the city. According to the wife, they fell in love “completely, irrationally, predictably, and headfirst, like a rock might fall in love with a bird, not knowing who the rock was and who the bird.” Yet as they embark on their cross-country journey, there is a palpable sense that this love, and by extension their life together as a family, is not likely to survive.

The trip is a relocation, at least in the case of the husband and the boy. A newly acquired house in Arizona is to be home base for the husband’s new work project, a years-long endeavor to gather the lost sounds of the Apaches. The husband made the decision to move without consulting the wife, and she believes that once the family reaches Arizona, he will ask her and the girl to return to the apartment in New York and resume their old lives — only this time without him and the boy.

In the weeks leading up to their departure, the wife befriends an undocumented immigrant, Manuela, whom she assists in retaining a lawyer to petition for the release of her two daughters, ages eight and 10, who crossed the Southern border and reportedly are being held at a US detention center. The plight of Manuela’s family haunts the wife, and her quiet despair only intensifies during the long drive to Arizona as the car radio reports on families like Manuela’s, whose young children are being denied the right to live with relatives already in the United States. Manuela’s situation leads the wife to conceive a new project of her own, one that will document the experiences of “lost children” — kids who undergo dangerous journeys in order to be reunited with family in the United States but who never make it because they die along the way or are sent back to their birth country.

This is the narrative foundation upon which Luiselli unfolds her new novel, Lost Children Archive, a compelling, beautifully articulated work that is a profound and unsentimental composition on exile. The novel is an amplification, of sorts, of her 2017 book-length essay, Tell Me How It Ends, in which she shares her experience as a translator working with Latin American children who face deportation.

Lost Children Archive incorporates samples from actual literary works, music, photographs, maps, and official records into its plot, and the novel’s intertextuality, the way that these items communicate with and relate to Luiselli’s story, is masterful. Many of the referenced documents are contained in one of seven boxes that the family takes with them on their trip. Of these boxes, four belong to the husband and contain items related to his Apaches project; the other three belong to the wife, the boy, and the girl, respectively. Luiselli bookends a number of the novel’s chapters with an inventory list of each box’s contents, and these lists illustrate one of the novel’s central concerns: how historical memory is a construct, one that we create by including (and not including) certain documents in the archive of an event.

Through their respective projects on the Apaches and the lost children, both husband and wife seek to recapture the essence of these exiled groups by gathering any traceable fragments of their transitory presences. They are trying to capture what is just below the surface, “the layer that goes unnoticed.” But as the wife explains to the boy, the very act of collecting and ordering information in order to recreate an experience creates its own absence because the documentary evidence of a past event cannot be complete — it is only an assortment of pieces cut from the whole of the actually experienced event. It is a bitter irony of the novel that the wife and husband are blind to how this concept reflects their own situation: their preoccupation with reconstructing others’ histories has absented them from their family’s emotional life, and they are incapable of being present for their kids or of fully seeing the damage that their strained relations and anticipated separation are doing to them.

In many respects, this is a family in limbo, suspended in liminal states of time, geography, and emotional commitment. Luiselli’s writing is modulated in tone and pacing in a way that amplifies the feeling of irresolution. First, there is the interminable nature of the car trip, which feels prolonged as a consequence of the adults’ emotional detachment and their seeming indifference about when they will reach their destination. The kids’ grumbling impatience about the trip’s duration only reinforces this sense. In addition, the absence of a clear decision about what the wife and girl will do once the family arrives in Arizona creates a foreboding unease for everyone in the car, an anxiousness that is amplified by the wife’s inability to help Manuela find her two daughters.

But, it is the vast empty space of the American Southwest that best symbolizes the suspended state of existence not only for the family, but also for the exiled Apaches of the past and immigrant children of the present. All share the experience of traversing this land, so sparsely populated yet where there is no room for them. The similarities among these three groups of “exiles” are meaningful — all are displaced, homeless, and rejected. This Southwest geography of canyons and void spaces creates sound reverberations, and echoes are a motif in the novel. Luiselli’s haunting stories of the displaced persons who migrated through this land, either by force or circumstance, give the impression that traces of their presence still inhabit the land in echoes, that these sounds are a memory of their existence, a past waiting to be reclaimed.

In the novel’s second half, the story’s voice moves from the wife’s to that of the boy, and Luiselli pulls off this narrative duality so skillfully that it seems effortless. In articulating the thoughts of this precocious, sensitive 10-year-old, she exposes the vulnerabilities and preceptive powers that are unique to childhood. The boy’s fears, pride, protectiveness, and desperate desire to find a solution to the precarious state of his family’s solidarity are portrayed with understanding and authenticity. The boy has a deep empathy for his sister and parents, and possesses an almost intuitive knowledge of the meanings behind their silences. Both he and his younger sister have that rare gift of some children: the seemingly instinctual sense of recognizing when and how to disrupt tense situations involving those they love. The boy and the girl share a silent compatibility, what the boy refers to as being “alone together.” The silences between them are comfortable, each alone in his or her private thoughts but still connected. It is a compatibility that the husband and wife have not achieved — their silences are angry, and the emotional divide between them grows wider each day of travel.

The novel is rich with parallels. First, it uses many of the same chapter headings in each of the wife-narrated and the boy-narrated sections — a cue that two different interpretations of the same concept or event are being presented. Thematically, the novel draws on similarities in the criminal mistreatment of past and current-day exiles. Most significant is the convergence between the private tragedy of the family’s quiet destruction and the public horror of the forcible separation of immigrant parents from their children. In braiding together the US government’s expulsion of the lost children and the husband’s emotional and physical expulsion of the wife, the pain and fear of their rejections merge, the immigrant families are made more relatable to us and the injustice of their fate becomes intolerable to our conscience.

Toward the end of the novel, a significant event occurs that temporarily jolts the wife from her stoic passivity. The family takes an intentional detour in their journey to arrive at a New Mexico air strip just in time to witness a group of officers directing immigrant children on to a plane that will take them out of the country:

[T]he officers who escorted the children now walk back toward the hangar, looking like a football team after practice, joking around, slapping one another on the back of the head. […] They turn around to face the plane as its engines are switched on, and clap in unison as it slowly begins to maneuver. From some dark depth I didn’t know was in me, a rage is unleased — sudden, volcanic, and untamable. I kick the mesh fence with all my strength, scream, kick again, throw my body against it, hurl insults at the officers. They can’t hear me over the plane’s engines. But I continue to scream and kick until I feel my husband’s arms surrounding me from behind, holding me, tight. Not an embrace but a containment. 

The scene lays bare the cruel injustice of the US government’s policy and the lack of empathy on the part of some of those who implement it. It exposes humanity’s ugly, innate tendency to impose our will on peoples that we regard as “Other,” and the pernicious legacy of nations that practice exclusion as a means of asserting superiority over them. Lost Children Archive brings into sharp focus the deep wrongs that are being inflicted upon immigrant children in our name. It demands that our numbed complacency be shaken, and our rage unleashed.

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Lori Feathers is a freelance book critic who lives in Dallas, Texas. She authors the essay series “In Context” for Literary Hub as well as Words Without Borders’s regular feature, “Best of the B-Sides.” Lori is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle, and her work appears in various online and print publications. She co-owns Interabang Books in Dallas, where she works as the store’s book buyer.