The Jaguar's Children / John Vaillant
Toronto: Knopf, c2015.
Vaillant, better known for his award-winning nonfiction like The Tiger or The Golden Spruce, turned to fiction with this debut novel. And it is a stunner.
Hector has decided to illegally cross the border into the US (this is obviously set a few years ago when that would still be a desirable destination). He gathers up enough money to pay the 'coyotes' to take him across with a group of other desperate wishful immigrants. The coyotes, though, are usually gang-related and not entirely trustworthy.
Hector climbs into a water tanker with a group of others, and the hole is welded shut after them. This is a brilliant subterfuge, as no-one could fit into the tanker's opening, thus making it highly unlikely to be suspect. But it also makes for a terrifying trip, especially once the truck stops in the desert, abandoned by their drivers.
It's a difficult read, as Hector finds an American name on his friend Cesar's phone, and begins sending messages calling for help. The book is structured as a modern epistolary novel; rather than letters, this is made up of one-way phone messages, but with the same effect.
Vaillant is able to compress a long backstory into a cohesive narrative, one that compels attention and highlights the many reasons why someone might feel desperate enough to attempt this border crossing. He shows a variety of personalities in the group Hector is travelling with, and enlarges upon the vivid culture of Oaxaca - both its strengths and the reasons people might want to leave it. I felt that it powerfully humanized the immigrants who are often demonized instead, giving them a full existence and demanding understanding and empathy from the reader.
While it's a bit of a terrifying and breathless reading experience, I also think it's a very strong novel. The writing suits the story, and it moves along very quickly, with the reader rushing to find out the conclusion. But at the same time, there is a focus on developing the characters and their lives and longings. It's a striking combination.