Valeria Luiselli: Lost Children Archive – “one of the sharpest new voices”

We delve into the Mexican author’s latest and finest work yet.

Unlike music, it’s hard to keep up to date with new literature. There are just as many new books being released as there is new music and while stating the obvious, the written word takes a lot more time and commitment than sound.

While Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive was released in 2019, it’s still important to highlight its importance and try to unravel why it is so vital.

Lost Children Archive was long listed for both the 2019 Booker Prize and Women’s Prize for Fiction. It won the 2020 Rathbones Folio Prize with Luiselli the first woman to win the award.

(As an aside, the prize money from the Liverpool-based company for the award currently sits at £30,000 – £5,000 more than the ever coveted Mercury Music Prize, which is sponsored by one of the world’s biggest car manufacturers in Hyundai – go figure).

Lost Children Archive is a story that interchanges between a New York family embarking on a road trip and the vexing circumstances surrounding thousands of children from South America embarking on their own journey to the United States border in their pursuit to seek refuge.

Luiselli’s searing political voice and her ability to project brilliant imagery through her words are two of the novel’s greatest feats and it’s largely down to her daring technical proficiency to mould the two stories together.

While we will try to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum, it’s not so much the story that is the focal point. Whilst very harrowing and unique, it is indeed Luiselli’s creative inventiveness that piques the interests the most.

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The ingenuity through the Mexican author’s writing technique is something that Luiselli‘s peers fail to replicate or, indeed, seem to aspire to. Certainly not the elder statesmen of the literary world, anyway.

In 2021 it seems like the pure scope for creativity with the written word is a young person’s game and with that said, the 37-year-old Luiselli is leading the line.

Firstly, we never know the names of each character other than the daughter, which is nonchalantly revealed shortly after the midway point of the story.

Luiselli switch-ups in point of view are equally excellent.

The novel’s first part, from the mother’s point of view in the first person, is where Luiselli expertly sets the tone, not through the story itself but through the mother’s unique voice.

Valeria Luiselli - Lost Children Archive

By the mother referring to her family as ‘the boy’, ‘the girl’ and ‘my husband’, you sense a cold detachment, not highlighted any better than the following quote:

“Unhappiness grows slowly. It lingers inside you, silently, surreptitiously. You nourish it, feeding it scraps of yourself every day – it is the dog kept locked away in the back patio that will bite your hand off if you let it. Unhappiness takes time, but eventually it takes over completely. And then happiness–the word–arrives only sometimes, and always like a sudden change of weather.”

This is the first time I’ve come across a novel where a character has been fleshed out in this fashion, with Luiselli basically (pardon the pun) flipping the script.

The novel’s second part is also in first person, but from the boy’s point of view. Again, another first for me, where the character is talking in first person but addressing his sibling in second [person]. Yet another trick Luiselli produces from her sleeve.

The penultimate chapter consists of the boy unloading a stream of conscious tour de force. 20 pages without a full stop, with sentences broken up with commas to stem the flow. It’s a style inspired by part Cormac McCarthy part Jack Kerouac, with the boy’s imagination running wild and linking up he and his sister’s predicaments with the lost children that feature in concurrent story.

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Luiselli may rue the decision to implement this final technique, but the ambition is admirable. The opening chapters of the novel give Luiselli enough credits in the bank for this perceived misstep and doesn’t prove an anchor to this story. The prose delivered in the opening chapter, in particular, projects echoes of what Jonathan Franzen achieved with The Corrections. So too, Virginia Woolf, whom Luiselli references in her acknowledgements.

And speaking of those acknowledgements, Luiselli highlights her writing techniques, which is yet another interesting facet of this journey.

From the hundreds of books read over the years, Luiselli provides yet another rarity. Rarely do you see authors talking about these things, not even in interviews (okay, perhaps the odd reference in the Paris Review, but still).

Again, here it feels like Valeria Liuselli is taking it upon herself to break boundaries and do things in her own away. This isn’t punk literature by any stretch of the imagination, but the attitude could certainly be attributed to punk ethos.

With Lost Children Archive, Luiselli has provided something urgent and engaging, to the point where she is unquestionably one of the sharpest new voices in the literary world.

Lost Children Archive is out now via 4th Estate. Purchase here.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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