Michel Stone’s new novel “Border Child” is a sequel to “The Iguana Tree,” published a few years ago. In that first novel, a young Mexican couple Héctor and Lilia lost their child Alejandra when Lilia and the infant attempted to cross the American-Mexican border to meet Héctor in South Carolina.
In “Border Child,” the couple gets a chance to track down Alejandra, who may still be alive after more than three years. While Lilia, pregnant with their third child, stays home with their 2-year-old Fernando, Héctor tries to find Alejandra.
Stone tells this story through multiple third-person viewpoints. She depicts a distressing scene of poverty and crime in Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico, and delivers an often-poignant portrayal of Mexicans who dream of crossing to a better life in Norteamérica. Stone, a Spartanburg resident who received the South Carolina Fiction Project award for short fiction in 2011, writes in a semi-formal, descriptive way that doesn’t impede the plot’s momentum, but the prose is marred with some stylistic and narrative blemishes.
The story begins when Héctor tells Lilia that he’s seen a man in the village who may be a link to their missing daughter. The man, Emanuel, had arranged for an uncle to take Lilia and Alejandra into Texas. Alejandra had been left with a female coyote – as those who smuggle humans across the border are known – who was supposed to meet up with Lilia. She never did.
Lilia talks about the sighting with her midwife Rosa, a conversation that puts the plot summary of “The Iguana Tree” into the mouths of her characters.
“My coyote was Emanuel’s uncle Carlos; he got me to the border. He forced me to hand Alejandra over to a woman he used, a coyote for babies, because Carlos told me he didn’t cross with babies but this woman did.”
“Of course I know all this, Lilia.”
The recap, more for the reader’s benefit than part of an actual conversation, would be better rendered as narration.
Further, Lilia’s voice is simple and direct. She’s 23, married at 18, has little education. She makes and sells pottery. Stone writes Lilia has a “childlike simplicity” about her. Lilia’s speech is usually straightforward, sometimes excited: “Are you certain you saw him? Did you speak to him?” But occasionally Lilia’s voice is supplanted by the author’s semi-formal voice: “Our marriage is like a shattered clay pot whose shards have been glued back in place,” Lilia says.
A similar problem arises with Héctor, whose language is simple like Lilia’s. Sometimes, his speech is elegant: “My boyhood dreams were to move beyond this place, yet here I am a man. My situation remains as it was, but I no longer have such dreams.” That’s almost eloquent. But, later, when he’s deciding whether to carry a cumbersome cooler down a ladder, Stone renders his thoughts like this: “Or would the perilous effort prove foolhardy and irreparably life altering?” which sounds wildly out of character.
Héctor’s chances of finding Alejandra improve when he gets a tip from the parish priest that she may have been in an orphanage in Matamoras. But Héctor doesn’t have the money to get there. Luckily, though, he finds Emanuel who introduces him to Diego, a cliff diver with criminal connections. Diego shows Héctor how to quickly make the cash he needs for bus fare, food, lodging and possibly for bribes. The work doesn’t seem legitimate to Héctor, but he doesn’t ask questions. Stone intensifies the suspense of the search by juxtaposing Héctor’s search for Alejandra against the imminent birth of Lilia’s child, an event Rosa is trying to prolong until Héctor’s return.
Despite its narrative glitches, “Border Child” is a compelling and topical story about the lives of Mexican immigrant dreamers.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his blog at josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
By Michel Stone
Nan. A. Talese, 272 pages