Contemporary Literature

Lost Children Archive

I have put off writing this review for like, two weeks now. I took so many notes while reading, and marked so many passages, but in the end, I’m really struggling with my overall thoughts and reactions. I don’t really know how I felt about this one, nor how to eloquently (or even roughly but accurately) describe those feelings I did have. It’s been a long time since I have felt this intimated by a book and how to write a review about it. I think I may end up just giving you a bullet-point list of all little things I wrote down as I read and maybe that’ll give the best picture possible and you can draw your own conclusions at the end.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

“Euphemisms hide, erase, coat. / Euphemisms lead us to tolerate the unacceptable. And, / eventually, to forget. / Against a euphemism, remembrance. In order to not repeat. / Remember terms and meanings. Their absurd disjointedness.”

Before I start, a quick synopsis, as per usual. In Lost Children Archive, a mother, father and their two children set off on a cross country road trip, from NYC to the Southwest. Traveling there as a part of the father’s most recent job, relating to Apache history, the family’s time in the car is spent in stories, conversations, audiobooks and radio stories about the “immigration crisis” and the children who don’t make the desert crossing of America’s Southwestern border. The parents are drifting apart and the children feel that schism grow as they travel. And the trip culminates with what is described as “a grand, harrowing adventure – both in the desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.”  

So, here are my scattered feelings:

  • I love a book with short little snippets/sections, that jump in topic/time/perspective and this one is using that device to perfection. Told in snippets of musings and moments and conversations and reflections, it’s a jumpy style that ends up reading with a lovely flow.
  •  A fascinating base concept for a novel – I had no idea sound jobs like this existed and the focus on the sounds/audio of life and the way they create memory and archive is so cool and unique and such a different view of what makes up a life than I’ve ever read or considered.
  • The writing is beautiful – philosophical and lyrical.
  • I loved the commentary and questions and insights from the children’s points of view. They felt really authentically written.
  • There’s a lot of deep philosophy in this novel about documenting (visual and auditory) and whether it’s really possible and how we mess up or misrepresent moments/stories by trying and it’s sometimes hard to follow but when I can grasp the concepts, they are profound thoughts.
  • Related to that last point, there are so many unique viewpoints and observations of life and people and moments, all perspectives or things noticed that I personaly wouldn’t have noticed at all, or at very least not seen in the same way.
  • One more related comment: this is the most literarily intellectual and deeply introspective/philosophical book I have read in a long time. I have to say, I was a bit intimated by this one and never feel like I got that much more comfortable with it/adjusted to it. I know I missed a lot while reading but don’t even know where to start regarding how to address what went over my head. It never got “easier” to read.
  • The stark landscape of the story and expressive writing are a wonderfully created juxtaposition.
  • There are SO MANY narrative arcs and themes, visual and auditory repetition, that are woven together so smoothly that I’m sure I didn’t even catch them all but was so impressed with what I did recognize.
  • In the last section, when the pages-long stream of consciousness pulls you in its tide and the reality (the sound mirages in the heat exhaustion of the desert) mix with the echoes of ancient, and more recent but still lost, sounds coincide with the structural formation of the book around recording and archiving these sounds – and the interplay of the lost children in the literal and representative sense – it’s really cool stylistically and thematically.
  • And a follow-up related to that last section’s style being very cool but so different from the rest of the book. I think perhaps there were too many styles and point of view types in this novel. By the end I kind of felt like I had read three different books or three different authors that had written this book.
  • The primary themes of Apache history and child immigration were both handled with respect and gravity, as well as being done in a very original way. I appreciate the heaviness of both and feel like the book gave the “correct” intensity to them – it felt like there was a weight on me, as the reader, from the very start of this book.
  • The ending, the whole last section that is the “grand, harrowing adventure” felt a bit contrived as it unfolded, the way the separate stories all came together/paralleled/overlapped, and the ostensibly “happy” ending to it…it all just rang a bit weird to me, though I cannot exactly put my finger on why.

After organizing all those, I still can’t tell you any final thoughts on this book. I was so impressed with so many things (the writing, the structure, the main topics, the thematic arcs), and yet there were some “plot” points and stylistic choices that didn’t always hit right for me. Plus, I think there were many times that theories and musings went over my head and it feels disingenuous to judge something like that. Bottom line, this book took me on a journey, in a number of ways, that is reflected in the road trip of the family at the center, and that was an experience from start to finish. If you are looking for a literary voyage, then this may be the book for you.

There were SO MANY PASSAGES that I marked while reading. If nothing else, the writing in this novel was something really special. Enjoy this selection:

“New families, like young nations after violent war of independence or social revolutions, perhaps need to anchor their beginnings in a symbolic moment and nail that instant in time.”

“Our mothers teach us to speak, and the world teaches us to shut up.”

“Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future.”

“The sound of everything and everyone that once surrounded us, the noise we contributed, and the silence we leave behind.”

“We drive onward, southwest-bound, and listen to the news on the radio, news about all the children traveling north. They travel, alone, on trains and on foot. They travel without their fathers, without their mothers, without suitcases, without passports. Always without maps. They have to cross national borders, rivers, deserts, horrors. And those who final arrive are placed in limbo, are told to wait.”

“I suppose that someone who is fleeing is still not a refugee. A refugee is someone who has already arrived somewhere, in a foreign land, but must wait for an indefinite time before actually, fully having arrived. Refugees wait in detention centers, shelters, or camps; in federal custody and under the gaze of armed officials. They wait in long lines for lunch, for a bed to sleep in, wait with their hands raised to ask if they can use the bathroom. They wait to be let out, wait for a telephone call, for someone to claim or pick them up. And then there are refugees who are lucky enough to be finally reunited with their families, living in a new home. But even those still wait. They wait for the court’s notice to appear, for a court ruling, for either deportation or asylum, wait to know where they will end up living and under what conditions. They wait for a school to admit them, for a job opening, for a doctor to see them. They wait for visas, documents, permission. They wait for a cue, for instructions, and then some wait some more. They wait for their dignity to be restored.” (so evocative and poignant)

“I suppose that words, timely and arranged in the right order, produce an afterglow. When you read words like that in a book, beautiful words, a powerful but fleeting emotion ensues. And you also know that soon, it’ll all be gone: the concept you just grasped and the emotion it produced. Then comes a need to possess that strange, ephemeral afterglow, and to hold on to that emotion. So you reread, underline, and perhaps even memorize and transcribe the words somewhere – in a notebook, on a napkin, on your hand.”

“Whenever the boy and girl talk about refugees, I realize now, they call them “the lost children.” I suppose the word “refugee” is more difficult to remember. And even if the term “lost” is not precise, in our intimate family lexicon, the refugees become known to use as “the lost children.” And in a way, I guess, they are lost children. They are children who have lost the right to a childhood.”

“Perhaps I should say that documenting is when you add thing plus light, light minus thing, photograph after photograph; or when you add sound, plus silence, minus sound, minus silence. What you have, in the end, are all the moments that didn’t for part of the actual experience. A sequence of interruptions, holes, missing parts, cut out from the moment in which the experience took place. Because experience, minus a document of the experience, is experience minus one. The strange thing is this: if, in the future one day, you add all those documents together again, what you have, all over again, is the experience. Or at least a version of the experience that replaces the lived experience, even if what you originally documented were the moments cut out from it.”

“They were all there to claim their disappeared, there to protest silently against a bigger, deeper silence.”

“Hard to explain why two complete strangers may suddenly decide to share an unbeautified portrait of their lives.”

“His stories are not directly linked to the piece I’m working on, but the more I listen to the stories he tells about the country’s past, the more it seems like he’s talking about the present.” (the cycle of violence and suppression in our country runs deep and continues)

“Fear – in daytime, under the sun – is something concrete, and it belongs to the adults: speeding on the highway, white policemen, possible accidents, teenagers with guns, cancer, heart attacks, religious fanatics, insects large and medium. At night, fear belongs to children. It’s more difficult to understand its source, harder to give it a name. Night fear, in children, is a small shift of quality and mode in things, like when a cloud suddenly passes in front of the sun, and the colors dim to a lesser version of themselves.”

“…the right way of telling the story, knowing that stories don’t fix anything to save anyone but maybe make the world both more complex and more tolerable. And sometimes, just sometimes, more beautiful. Stories are a way of subtracting the future from the past, the only way of finding clarity in hindsight.”

“Also, writing is slower and reading is slower, but at the same time listening is slower than looking, which is a contradiction that cannot be explained.”

4 thoughts on “Lost Children Archive

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