‘Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

If you have read the extraordinary Tell Me How it Ends, it will be clear that there is a topical continuation in the narrative of Valeria Luiselli’s latest novel Lost Children Archive. It is no surprise that the subject of migrant children is very much at the centre of this spectacular novel, but it is also a moving study of family dynamics.

As the family takes on a road trip from New York to the border with Mexico, the narrative becomes more and more intimate to the point that the reader feels like another passenger sitting in that car. What I found very moving are the descriptions of the relationship between parents and children. I think that in this novel Luiselli reminds us of the importance of observing our children aiming to understand who they are simply by contemplating them.


‘They look memorable from where I’m sitting: look like they should be photographed. I almost never take pictures of my own children. They hate being in pictures and always boycott the family’s photographic moments (…) Adults pose for eternity; children for the instant

As they cross the United States, dad tells the kids stories of the native Americans and in particular that of Geronimo. Mum is all about those children desperately trying to cross the Mexico-US border to be reunited with their relatives. Luiselli, as in Tell Me How it Ends drops those bombs that leave you once again stunned. It is a known fact that to start the deportation process (or ‘removal’ as the American authorities like to say) the detention centres (or ICE) are raided. And in that in-between children go missing. Do they escape? Is it better to become a missing person to eliminate the threat of being ‘removed’? How many thousands of children are wandering the streets now desperately trying to find a clue that will get them to mum or dad?

A critical point in the novel is when the family witness the deportation of around 20 children. Girls and boys lined up to board a small plane in an air strip in the middle of nowhere. What a better place, away from the public eye, away from everyone that could care.


If they hadn’t gotten caught, they probably would have gone to live with family, gone to school, playgrounds, parks. But instead, they’ll be removed, relocated, erased because there’s no place for them in this vast empty country’.

It has been a long time since I felt the need to mark a book, to make sure I remember those phrases to be able to go back to them again and again. Reading Lost Children Archive made me seriously think about the fragility of a child’s life, and how memories and experiences shape who they will become. Childhood is precious because it is so easily hurt. And of course, the stories of those unaccompanied child migrants keep making me sad and furious but I think we all have to thank Valeria Luiselli for the painful reminder of a reality faced by thousands of kids.


‘The only thing that parents can really give their children are little knowledges (…) this is how you cut your own toe nails, this is the temperature of a real hug, this is how you untangle the knots in your hair, this is how I love you.’

The novel has an unusual but genius structure that revolves around six boxes that are contained in the boot of the car. There are Polaroid pictures snapped by the 10 year-old son, maps, lists, and an impressive number of references to literary works, films and music. Even David Bowie’s Space Oddity plays a phenomenal role in the story. Lost Children Archive is a stunning novel, it’s moving, a little bit sad but worth reading because once again Valeria Luiselli strikes literary perfection.

Lost Children Archive is published in the UK by Harper Collins

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‘Tell Me How It Ends’ by Valeria Luiselli

The first time I heard about Valeria Luiselli was because I was looking for her novel The Story of my Teeth. I resisted the temptation of reading it in English and waited for my next trip to Mexico City to buy it. It was January 2018. Book distribution in Mexico never fails to surprise me so, of course, after visiting two major bookshops La historia de mis dientes was no where to be seen. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel and a genius bookseller said to me, why don’t you read Los niños perdidos (Tell Me How It Ends) and he handed me a thin little book. ‘It’s an essay’ he said, ‘about unaccompanied migrant children’. It was cheap, short and I thought that the main thing at that point was simply to read Valeria Luiselli.

Tell Me How It Ends is one of the most memorable books I have read in a long, long, time. And perhaps one of the most relevant of the last decade. Everyone should read it and this is why:

We are constantly bombed by images of migrants and their suffering. We are exposed to endless images of Syrian refugees; desperate people crossing the Mediterranean in the middle of the night on dangerous inflatable rafts; others crossing deserts by foot fleeing violence and war in their home nations. All of them in the most critical of situations, risking absolutely everything, their lives and those of their families. But I find that amidst the heart-breaking situation of all these people, migrants are perceived as a threat. ‘Look, here they come’, ‘Shouldn’t they be stopped?’.

The discourse of an utterly lack of compassion permeates the images we see on our screens on alarmingly regular basis. We witness the struggles and suffering of those parents risking their children’s life in the hope of a better future. I always wonder how desperate they must be that the prospect of drowning in the cold waters of the Mediterranean Sea is something worth considering, because if you make it, your life stands a chance of being better. Even if it’s a little bit better, that tiny bit it’s worth the try.

Now, think about this: picture all those images I’ve described but remove the adults, the mothers and fathers and that leaves you the absolutely insane, inhumane reality of unaccompanied migrant children. And that sucks. And makes me sad and angry.

As Europe struggles with its own migrant crisis, on the other side of the planet, Tell Me How It Ends focuses on those children making its way to the Mexico -US border in the hands of ‘coyotes’, who are nothing but ruthless people smugglers. These kids walk, cross rivers on rafts, ride on top of cargo trains and who knows what else for weeks or months until they reach the border sitting on a notoriously dangerous desert. What they want, is simply to reach their relatives in the United States. They want to feel at home.

The story usually is the following: the home town is unsafe, crippled by gang or drug trafficking violence. This mean people get murdered, women raped, there’s now where to turn and the best shot of surviving is by going away. So, mum, dad or older siblings leave chasing the American Dream and manages to settle over there. The children are left behind in the care of a relative. Flash forward months (or even years) grandma or auntie or uncle receive the instructions and money to get pay a ‘coyote’ to bring the kids over. The journey can take months and the risks are enormous. Kids are asked to memorise the life saving number that will get them to their families in the US, some have it stitched to the collar of the shirt or dress they are wearing. Imagine that. The best chance they have to making it is to be ‘caught’ by the Border Patrol and sent to one of the detention centres that we have seen on our TV screens (and looked away). From there, their situation is reviewed and if applicable they then appear in court. These little Guatemalan. Honduran, Ecuadorian, Nicaraguan or Salvadorian kids are asked to answer a questionnaire made up of 40 questions, in English, of course.

I’ll stop there because it is here where Luiselli’s little book becomes most essential and necessary to understand how this can be possible. Tell Me How It Ends works around these 40 questions. It narrates the stories she witnessed when working as a volunteer translator in a NY court assisting children, as young as 4, facing a judge who would then decide they had the right to remain in the US. If not, they are ‘removed’ from the country. This book, just shy of 100 pages is an absolute essential read to understand migration. It is, perhaps, an uncomfortable reminder of the lack of compassion towards those in need. And the more heart breaking when those risking their lives are so young and vulnerable. All that these unaccompanied child migrants want is their mum and dad to kiss them goodnight, and the world is taking that away from them.

Tell me How it Ends is published in the UK by Fourth Estate

Memory of Water

 

m of w

This novel came to my hands as a proof copy sent to work by Harper Collins (thank you for the freebie!). It was one of those days when you feel like reading something completely random and the thought of a young Finnish author caught my attention. I know very little about Finland and the cover looked weird enough to give it a go (yes, I do judge books by their covers, ready my post about book covers here). The point is, I had no idea I was in for a literary treat.

For some strange reason I always end up reading historical fiction or miserable novels. I am incapable of recommending people a happy book. Perhaps because it’s so difficult to read a good funny book and sad stories tend to bring the best of authors. It’s a mystery.

So there I was with my copy of Memory of Water which looked to be a serious read with secrets and intrigue at the core of the plot. Yes please!  This is a superb first novel by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta which will leave you thinking about the things we take for granted:  water and freedom.  The story is set in the near future, at a time when China rules the world and the impact of climate change has left the planet with no seasons and most importantly with a critical shortage of water.

Noria and her family are the tea masters of the village in what is called then the Scandinavian Union. They have a special relationship with water; one that brings secrets that are simply and too dangerous to share. Police rations water to all villagers but as it becomes scarce, and after her father’s death, Noria is decided to share the location of a secret spring. The consequences are well, you can imagine… disastrous.

If you like Margaret Atwood’s novels, you’ll love Memory of Water and please don’t pay too much attention to the cover and give this novel a chance. It’s worth it!

P.S. You can follow Emmi on Twitter @emmi_elina

 

 

 

 

Hate the character, love the book

commandantIs it possible to like novel featuring a protagonist that is evil and unscrupulous? Or is it that we admire the author’s ability to construct a character that will give us the creeps as the story unfolds? In order to find the answer to these questions I dare you to read Monsieur Le Commandant (Gallic Books).

In this outstanding book, Romain Slocombe gives life to Paul-Jean Husson, a character that you will find very hard to forget. This is an epistolary novel centred in one letter only addressed to a Secret Service Commandant. We are presented with one narrative voice which is that of Mr Husson. So don’t get too upset demanding ‘the other side of the story’. There will never be one.

So, who is Paul-Jean Husson? Our protagonist is a retired WWI hero, powerful, arrogant, also a novelist and on top of that a Nazi sympathiser. Needless to say, the anti-Semitic element is pretty much a key part of his personality but things get nasty when he falls desperately in love with his son’s German wife Ilse. And to make matters worse, after he investigates her background, he finds out that she’s Jewish. Well, if you think this sounds bad enough, Monsieur Le Commandant has many more surprises in store for you.

There’s no question that Mr Husson is a despicable character. The things he says in his letter to ‘Monsieur le Commandant’ are shocking and offensive but we must remember that Paul-Jean Husson is overall a man of his time.  So before you throw the book in rage remember this is 1942 and although it may be hard to believe, this novel is a reminder that there were people who thought persecuting Jewish people wasn’t such a bad idea.

‘The Jewish question has been often been misunderstood. I do not criticise the Yids for their work ethic . . . or for their notorious business acumen. As you know as well as I, the gravity of the situation is that the Jews pose a national and social threat to every country in which they are to be found. National, because the Jews are a homeless nation and assimilate only superficially into the civilization of the country that has nonetheless honoured them with its welcome.’ (p.43)

It is hard to read some of these lines in the present time and not think in horror how could someone say and do such things? But I applaud Romain Slocombe for creating such a despicable character such as Paul-Jean Husson.  Why? For the simple reason that he is a reminder that we’ve come a long way and we must work together to make the world a better place.

All About Mothers

cancion_de_tumba_julian_herbert_medIn recent months, for no specific reason I’ve found myself reading stories about mothers. One is the brilliant Canción de Tumba (something like Song of Tomb, a game of words in Spanish where a ‘canción de cuna’ is a lullaby and when changing 2 letters sound like tomb… got it?).  Anyways, in this book the author, Julian Hebert, narrates the story of his life with his mother, a prostitute, who is dying of leukaemia. If there are any publishers looking to translate an absolute jewel of Mexican contemporary literature, please look no further.

mother departsThe second title is Mother Departs by Tadeusz Rózewicz, Poland’s most celebrated writer and poet. Rózewicz has been nominated for the Nobel Prize and it’s one of those authors I am so glad to have discovered.

Mother Departs can be described as the portrait of a life. A truly moving read in which Rózewicz mixes diary entries, notes and poems. The book is wrapped in an atmosphere full nostalgia as it becomes a celebration of the life of: Stefania Rózewicz, his mother.

I found particularly interesting the fact that Stefania herself has a voice in the book  as she narrates her life as a child in the village of Szynkielew. This is a testimony of a world and a way of life long gone. Here she talks about traditions, culture and everyday life in rural Poland in the early twentieth century. Witty and observant, Stefania’s contribution to this book is one that certainly stands out.

The poems included in Mother Departs are also a pleasure to read, especially The Tear and The Photograph. As we move in time, Stefania becomes old and frail. And once again we witness the anguish of a man looking at  his mother fading away. Both Herbert and Rózewicz, in two completely different styles, narrate with an impeccable choice of words the last days in the life of their mothers. Heartbreaking yes, but the literary value of these books lay within the ability of these authors to talk about death with great beauty. In the final pages of Mother Departs, Rózewicz writes:

‘My Good Beloved Old Lady, it’s hard to breathe. But I am writing this like a letter to you. You were my trepidation, fear and joy and breath. I’m kissing your parched hands and swollen legs, dearest, your eyes – your blue hands as you died. I’m kissing your agonised body, which I gave back to our great mother – the earth.’ (p. 106)

They say no one is ever prepared for the death of their mother. I just hope I have many years ahead to enjoy the company of mine, a lady who is, and will always be, an extraordinary woman.

Mother Departs is published in the UK by Stork Press and translated from Polish by Barbara Bogoczek.

Let’s judge a book by its cover

I read somewhere that 70% of people who walk into bookshops are browsers. In other words, they simply don’t know what they want. The fact that browsers are open to anything that catches their eye, means that chances are they’ll grab those books with interesting covers. Because, tough as it is, books do get judged by their cover.

So let’s have a look at some examples. But before we go ahead, let me tell you that all of the following books made it to this blog entry, mainly, by the way they look (oh yes, let’s be vain!).

The “I’m so different” cover

These are the covers that stand out because they look different. A great deal of design it’s put into them, they make you smile and therefore have more chances of making it into your shopping basket. These covers are simply beautiful. The latest of these books that came to my attention is a novel called Freshta by Czech writer Petra Procházková.

Remove all the fonts and you’ll be left with a wonderful work of art that could easily have a place in my living room.

If curious to learn more about Freshta visit Stork Press’ website by clicking here.

The” made- into-film” book cover

This is one of the most infuriating marketing strategies ever. A book makes it into the big screen and therefore gets reprinted with a still of the film as cover! Message between the lines? Now that it’s a film, we WILL sell this book.

Marie Antoinette, the film, got released in 2006 and as a result, the cover of this award winning biography was changed to feature a still of Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette. The 18th century is no where to be seen in this cover, the dominating pink colour makes it look closer to chick lit than to a serious and well researched biography. One word: rubbish.

Leaving anger aside, let’s move on.

The” less is more” cover

How about those covers where less is not necessarily more? Sometimes, simplicity is not effective. A perfect example of incredibly good novels with simple covers are those published by And Other Stories. All their books follow pretty much the same kind of design in an attempt to make a recognisable brand out of their books. I’m not convinced of how effective this could be, having in mind that browser who visits bookshops looking to be winked at.

For example, this cover do not speak to me. It simply doesn’t, and I think it’s is a missed opportunity to grab more readers.

Now, the “less is more” cover is distant cousins of the “image doesn’t match the story” cover.

And for these, I have to use the Spanish edition of  Mario Vargas Llosas’ La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat). The novel is set in the Dominican Republic and its plot revolves around the assassination of the cruel dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. Now a look at the cover! What is this! Well, looking at the tiny letters where all the copyright credits are, I found out that this image  is part of a fresco by Italian painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti called Allegory to Bad Government, c. 1338. As I scratch my head, I wonder if the publisher thought that Vargas Llosas’ readers are also experts in Medieval Italian art history.

The Sci- fi covers

I must confess here that I am not a science fiction reader but my home is flooded by all sorts of these novels as my husband reads nothing but sci fi. The covers are really fascinating ones, weird and complex.

For instance, check this Peter F. Hamilton cover for The Evolutionary Void. Brilliant! This is a monument to the “what you see is what you get” cover. An incredible amount of detail goes into each one of his best selling books, and I know that the plot never fails to be intriguing, ground breaking and different, just as the cover.

The “I’m a photograph” cover

Another type of covers have photographs at its core. We’ve all seen them as they are a resource that I believe is quite successful as sometimes people relate quicker to a photograph than perhaps an abstract design. A perfect example is the novel The Confidant by French author Hélène Grémillon. Look at it,  a beautiful pic. Goes without saying that the story is set in France and it involves two lovers, exactly like the ones in the photograph.

Interestingly, if you have a look at Gallic Books‘ website, you’ll see that all of Guillaume Musso’s covers are photographs? Perhaps a favourite strategy by this independent publisher?

The Retro Cover

We could spend a life time talking about retro covers. Penguin Books being the masters of it, celebrating the designs that stand the test of time and cleverly associating it to no other that their classics. Thumbs up!

But having said that and avoiding the obvious choice,  I need to celebrate the cover of Once Upon a Time in England, the second novel by Helen Walsh. A family looking into the distance surrounded by this wall paper kind of  design reminding us precisely of one of the years the novel is set in: 1975.

For any book lover, covers are a crucial aspect of our reading experience. I don’t know about you but I’ve read fantastic books with covers so hideous that I feel ashamed of; and I’ve also become a notorious contortionist just to find out what my fellow passenger is reading. The publishing industry invests hours and talent in designing book covers that will sell books but it seems like the e-readers and Kindles are decided to take that from us. For a curious commuter and book cover police like me, it frustrates me enormously not being able to find out what all of those Kindle users are reading, simply because I can’t judge that book by its cover.

Happiness, love and time

Belgravia Books has given me the joy of coming across new authors. Some of them really well known in the UK (but out of my radar) and others who have sold millions of copies (and I wasn’t one of those enthusiastic buyers). But is never late to learn new things and discover new favourite books. This is how I was introduced to François Lelord. A French author who decided to leave his successful career as a psychiatrist to write about the main three concerns of all human beings: Happiness, Love and Time. In that order.

Lelord created a fantastic character called Hector, a psychiatrist who is not entirely enjoying life and decides to to take round the world trips searching for the best ways to understand what makes us happy, why we fall in love and to learn of passage of time. Hector’s Journeys are three novels written, let say, for the ordinary reader in a very simple narrative form and in a fairy tale style. They do begin with Once upon a time!

In the trilogy, Hector writes a series of notes that guide the reader and invite us to give them a practical use. For example, in Hector and the Search of Happiness , Hector shares his lessons which are a reminder for us readers that happiness sometimes is found in simple things. ” Lesson no. 3: Many people see happiness only in the future”.  Or what about: “Lesson no. 16: Happiness is knowing how to celebrate”.  How many times we see ourselves feeling miserable for nothing? Well, I think this is the book that should be read by everybody to remind us that life is full of reasons to be happy but overall that happiness should be shared.

Hector and the Secrets of Love is a slightly more complex novel in the sense that more characters come into the picture. But again, Lelord keeps Hector writing notes on those rational elements of love and also of heartache. (If you never felt either of those please do write me a note so I can forward it to Monsieur Lelord, he’ll be fascinated).  Let me give you an example: “Seedling no. 13: Passion in love can be terribly unfair”. Sounds familiar? Here’s another: ” Seedling no. 21: Love proves itself when put to the test”. 

And finally, his latest novel Hector Finds Time, its well, about time but also about life and how we live it through the passing of the years. In this book, Hector gives us exercises to help us understand this very abstract concept that rule our lives, sometimes with no mercy at all. (hello wrinkles!) Here’s how he does it: Time exercise No. 4: Think of all the people and things you are not paying enough attention to now, because one day they will be gone and then it will be too late.  

Without giving too much away, I believe the great thing about these three little novels is that each one is a simple recipe to live a better life. It goes pretty much in the way that love and happiness are all around you and its up to us to look out for them and grab it. The passing of time is inevitable, so deal with it and use time intelligently. For me that would mean being happy and keeping love around you.

In a session early this week at Belgravia Books, François Lelord said that he found easier to tackle these topics through simple lessons than writing an academic self help book as was first expected by his publishers at the time. The truth is that it’s no surprise that Lelord has sold millions of copies and his novels put a smile on my face. The issue is to give them to one or two people I know without them feeling I think they are sad, sad creatures (I just believe there is room for improvement!)

François Lelord is published in the UK by Gallic Books.