"Infinite Country" by Patricia Engel; Avid Reader Press/Simon & Schuster (208 pages, $25)
"Infinite Country," the new novel by Patricia Engel, has an irresistible first line:
“It was her idea to tie up the nun.”
The girl who has the idea, 15-year-old Talia, is intent on escaping from a remote reform school in the mountains of Colombia. "Infinite Country" is all about making escapes from one place to another, and about what is left behind.
Engel has written often about immigrant experiences in the U.S., in her first book, the story collection "Vida," and in her fine novel "The Veins of the Ocean," winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
Born to Colombian parents, Engel grew up in New Jersey, earned an MFA at Florida International University and teaches creative writing at the University of Miami.
"Infinite Country" tells the story of Talia and her family, in Colombia and in the U.S. The book opens with her flight from that reform school, where she has been sent because she responded to a pointless act of cruelty with a violent act of her own.
The act is completely out of character for a girl who has spent much of her life nursing her dying, beloved grandmother. Her sentence to six months in reform school is darkly comic in a country as tortured by violence as Colombia, as her father, Mauro, points out: “a nation of amnesiacs where narcotrafficantes become senators and senators become narcotrafficantes, killers become presidents and presidents become killers.”
It’s not a long sentence, but Talia’s need to get out is urgent because she has a plane ticket to the U.S., where she was born and where her mother, Elena, and siblings Karina and Nando live. She hasn’t seen them, except on phone screens, since she was a baby, and she’s determined to rejoin them — even though it means leaving Mauro behind in Bogotá.
The book alternates between her journey back to Bogotá — without money or a phone, sought by police, she relies on the kindness of strangers and mostly finds it — and the story of Mauro and Elena.
Neither of them knew their fathers, and Mauro’s mother abandoned him before he was in his teens, leaving him to grow up on the streets. Elena’s mother, Perla, was devoted to her daughter, running a laundry business to eke out a living.
Elena and Mauro meet sweetly as young teens, at the fruit stall where he works in the local market. Perla disapproves of the boy, but the couple’s love for each other eventually wins her over.
Mauro is the first to feel the pull of the U.S. He’s drawn not just by economic opportunity and the desire to escape Colombia’s chaotic violence, but by a sense of adventure. Elena, a new mother herself, hates to leave Perla behind. But when Mauro proposes going alone to work for a few months, she says, “Take us with you.”
They enter the U.S. not by crossing the Mexican border but the way the majority of so-called illegal immigrants do: legally. They come to Texas with six-month tourist visas, intending to “make some fat American dollars to pay off Perla’s debts, and return home with their savings plumped. People did this kind of thing all the time.”
But when those visas run out, they stay. They move from job to job, all of them arduous: cleaning houses and restaurants, moving furniture. Employers pay them under the table, or offer them work but cheat them, or don’t pay them at all, or call them into their office and sexually assault them, secure in the knowledge they’ll get away with all of it because who would undocumented immigrants complain to?
Even with all of that, Mauro and Elena make more in a week than they would make in a month in Colombia. Their second child is born in the U.S., and then Talia is, too. Little by little, they find better places to live, better jobs.
Then Mauro gets into a fight with a friend in a bar, and the police are called. After weeks in detention, Mauro is deported.
Back in Bogotá, he falls apart, struggling with drinking and homelessness. In New Jersey, Elena suddenly has sole responsibility for three small children. She can find day care for Karina and Nando while she works, but not newborn Talia.
“Elena sent Talia back to live with Perla with the idea that she would raise the baby for a little while until Elena could send for her return,” Engel writes. “When you leave one country for another, nobody tells you years will bleed together like rain on newsprint. One year becomes five and five years become ten. Ten years become fifteen.”
Most of the book is written in third person, from the points of view either of Talia or her parents. But late in the novel, first-person chapters pop up, most of them in the voice of Karina, Talia’s sister, who has grown up in the U.S. and is as crisply cynical as you’d expect an American teenager to be. “There are things I wanted to tell my sister before her arrival,” she says. “Like that you can love the United States of Diasporica and still be afraid of it.”
But beneath the attitude, she shares the deep loss and pain that all of her family struggles with: “Don’t tell me I’m undocumented when my name is tattooed on my father’s arm.”
"Infinite Country" is a beautifully written and humane book, and an uncannily timely one. In the news we see photographs of immigrant families separated, of children crossing borders alone, and we look away. Engel gives them faces and names and hearts that can be broken, and sometimes mended.