Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children ArchivePublisher: Knopf
Credit: Knopf

However we decide what defines a Great American Novel in 2019, it must feel a lot like what’s inside Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Not only because the narrative unfolds across a literal road map of the United States, or because its focus — open borders, blended families — is so painfully of the moment. But because the search for selfhood and manifest destiny seems so freshly recast in the frank intelligence and imagination of her telling.

Fittingly maybe, Lost ’s main characters, a married pair of New York documentarians and their two young children from previous relationships, don’t have names or definitive races, though it becomes clear that they’re seen as some kind of Other. The husband wants to head west to follow the trail of the Apaches; the wife is on a more ephemeral quest for two little girls last seen at a Texas detention center, daughters of a woman she hardly knows. And the kids — precisely, perfectly drawn — have their own minds.

Packaged like a sort of impressionistic scrapbook scattered with song lyrics, sketches, and Polaroids, the novel drifts almost dreamlike between the personal and political, finding beguiling detours and cul-de-sacs as it goes. By its feverish climax — the last 20 pages spill out in one single, streaming sentence — Luiselli isn’t just giving us a story, she’s showing us new ways to see. A-

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