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American Dirt: Captivating journey puts human face on immigration stories

Fiction: American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins

Tinder Press, hardback, 400 pages, €16.99

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Island peoples: Jeanine Cummins was born in Spain to Irish and Puerto Rican parents

Island peoples: Jeanine Cummins was born in Spain to Irish and Puerto Rican parents

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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Island peoples: Jeanine Cummins was born in Spain to Irish and Puerto Rican parents

The concept of movement between borders is innate to Irish DNA, even if some of us seem to be forgetting this at the time of writing.

Jeanine Cummins was born in Spain to Irish and Puerto Rican parents, two island nations separated by a vast ocean that have always been forced to look outwards for a better life. Amazingly, the New Yorker grappled with the responsibility of writing American Dirt because she felt it was not her place to saga the fortunes of a mother trying to get her young son through cartel-ridden Mexico and across the US border, that she was surely too privileged. The truth is that the conversation exists implicitly within her.

We can be thankful that she pressed ahead with the project, begun long before the US electorate lost its reason in 2016. With the plight of Latin American immigrants being reduced to such callous language, it matters that one of the most eagerly anticipated releases of the year should offer a visceral reminder that caravans are made up of individuals, many of whom are being forced to run the border gauntlet out of sheer desperation.

It is the simplest wonder of literature that it puts names and temperatures on to concepts too remote for us to touch. Here, we get mother, wife and bookshop owner Lydia whose life in Acapulco is destroyed when a vengeful cartel guns down her journalist husband and extended family at her niece's 15th birthday party. Hiding from the carnage in the shower (depicted from the get-go in sweaty, galloping tempo) are Lydia and son Luca.

Terror gives way to short-lived grief before steely resolve awakens as Lydia realises that nowhere is now safe from "La Lechuza", the gentlemanly cartel boss who has eyes across the country, especially throughout so-called law enforcement. Nightmarish slabs of detail remind us of the unspeakable methods used by these cartels on enemies, hyperbole-free descriptions acquired through Cummins' extensive research. For Lydia, there is simply no question of staying where they are in this "brutal, bloodstained" place, and an uncle in Denver becomes a gossamer of hope in this world.

The omnipresence of these distant monsters coupled with the aching, prototypic humanity of mother and child make American Dirt impossible to look away from once you've embarked on its saga. Lydia constantly has to press terror and sadness to the side so that she and Luca can negotiate migrant shelters, dicey jumps on to trains, and the perennial dog-eat-dog world of danger found along the packed migrant road that leads to el Norte and a dice-roll at salvation.

In the spaces in between, there are moments of stark realisation, such as when it first comes home to her that she and Luca are not disguising themselves as migrants, it's what they actually are now. All her life, she has pitied them, donated money to them, and "wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite" about their wretched lives. Cummins is forcing us to consider how many of these people have had a similarly abrupt tumble down the social pyramid.

Elsewhere, when Lydia and Luca are far along the road, she permits herself to dip into precious funds to buy a coffee from a vendor as a means to try and defend "a growing sense of her very humanity … under siege".

As they carefully press through the Badlands, they meet fellow travellers of varying backgrounds. Two teenage sisters from Honduras, Rebecca and Soledad, become travel companions. At first, Lydia is spellbound by their beauty, particularly that of the older Soledad. But quickly, it occurs to Lydia that such beauty, no matter how much the girl tries to disguise it, is a liability in this world of wolves, and that no one is immune from predation when corruption and impunity are the norm.

There are places where Cummins alludes to the inadequacy of language. For all Lydia's love of words, "at times they're entirely insufficient". Sebastian, her slain journalist husband, had adopted the headline "Acapulco Falls" for a report about a spate of recent and bloody cartel atrocity across the city. Lydia thinks back to the conversation with him, how she found it "a little melodramatic", before reflecting on the constant fear she came to live in that her husband would inevitably become a headline himself. (Mexico, we're told, was the deadliest country in the world to be a journalist at one stage, on par with Iraq and Syria).

It is appropriate, then, that American Dirt should hold language on something of a pedestal. In her fourth title to date (preceding it, two novels and a true crime account of violence perpetrated against three members of her family), Cummins flexes language through this thrilling tale like an electric charge. She is able to reel it in, make it tight and immediate, before unfurling it when needed. Words mightn't always be enough to depict the very limits of human barbarity and resilience, but in the world of genre fiction such as this, it can deepen understanding and sensation.

You're propelled along by American Dirt's restless pace and the ongoing sets of challenges and traps that face this beleaguered nucleus of characters. It is "unputdownable", to use that awful phrase. But the real work is done below the surface of the story. That's where the hard truth infects you and the reality of migrants everywhere - Mexico, Syria, Sudan - is rammed home.

Thrilling this may be, but Cummins has not written a thriller. She is too respectful of the very real risks these poor souls are exposing themselves to just to provide a better life for their children.

Indo Review