I love books that break my heart. I can’t help it. I love a good cry in the safe space of a fictional character’s life. I also love fiction that helps me understand real-life situations better than real life can, or than my real life has the opportunity to. And if it’s beautifully written to boot? Swoon. Infinite Country, a new novel by Patricia Engel, joins a rarified list that accomplishes all of the above.
The book opens with teen Talia escaping a correctional facility in the mountains of Colombia. She must make her way to Bogota where her father — and perhaps more importantly — a plane ticket to the United States, await her. She can’t miss that flight. That flight represents not just escape from a crime — and punishment — one can hardly blame her for committing, but also reunion with a mother and siblings she hardly knows anymore.
Through flashbacks we learn Talia’s parents’ story: how they fell in love and had a child, how they came to leave Colombia and have two more children, how they lived undocumented in America, how their family became separated when Talia’s father was deported and the family decided he should take the infant Talia with him. We learn — and feel — what it means for a family to live apart. Engel shows us the trauma of separation and she makes us understand why a family would put themselves through that trauma.
It’s a messy story told cleanly and evocatively. Engel further complicates our understanding by showing us the physical beauty of Colombia and the ugliness of out-of-the-way, undocumented America. But there is no glorifying of poverty in either place.
The novel asks, where and what is home? Is it the place of our birth or the place where we’ve spent the most time or simply where we currently reside? Is it with a mother, or with a father? Can home be multiple places at once? And I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I wondered whether Talia would make her flight, while also wondering what it would mean for her to actually make it.
What Engel does best in Infinite Country is make us feel, more than simply understand our current moment. An ultimately hopeful story, it’s also full of heartbreak, which allows us to avoid despair.