Patricia Engel’s luminous last novel, The Veins of the Ocean, tells the story of two displaced individuals — a Colombian-American woman besieged by guilt after a family tragedy, and a quiet Cuban man homesick for Havana — living in the Florida Keys. It’s a place, we’re told, “where people go to forget and be forgotten.”
Infinite Country, Engel’s equally poignant new novel, revolves around another cast of lost souls caught between belonging and exile. This time though, Engel’s protagonists are the members of a single family — a married couple and their three children — that’s been “split as if by an axe,” forced to live between two continents.
The novel opens in Colombia, high in the mountains, where 15-year-old Talia is incarcerated in a correctional facility for troubled teenagers. One impetuous act of violence brought her here, and another reckless move sees her escape. Talia is determined to make it back to Bogotá, where she hopes to catch the flight to America that will reunite her with her mother and her siblings.
Two narratives thus unfold in parallel; that of Talia’s escape, and that of the events that led her family to this point. This story begins nearly two decades earlier when her parents, Mauro and Elena, flee the violence and civil unrest of the Colombian capital with their firstborn, Karina. They enter the US on a tourist visa, but instead of returning to Bogotá on the date their paperwork demands — and knowing that “just waking up another day in North America made a person a felon” — they decide to stay.
The couple have two more children, Nando and Talia — both American citizens despite the rest of the family’s precarious position — but when Talia is still a tiny baby, Mauro is caught and deported. Elena then makes the heartbreaking decision to send Talia home to be raised by her father and grandmother (“like some DHL package,” another character later carelessly jokes) so she can keep working. The family has been divided ever since.
Engel — an award-winning American novelist and short story writer, born to Colombian parents — delicately highlights the myriad cracks underlying the patina of this mixed-status family. A once-strong marriage is now only held together by “threads”, while circumstances have also driven a wedge between the sisters, “each born in one country and raised in another like repotted flowers, creatures forced to live in their wrong habitat.”
As in The Veins of the Ocean, Engel astutely depicts how exile is both a physical and a psychological state. But here too, mythology plays a key role. America “kept everyone hostage to its fantasy,” explains Engel. But so too Colombia — the real Colombia, that is, a “thing of majesty,” of magnificent history and of great natural beauty, not the Colombia of “campo tears and urban shame, of funerals and outcry, of corruption and displacement” — exerts its own pull. The quiet gracefulness of Engel’s prose further elevates the power of this beautifully written tale. Infinite Country is both a damning indictment of immigration policies that split up families, and an intimate story of one family’s search for home.
Infinite Country, by Patricia Engel, Scribner, RRP£14.99, 208 pages
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