Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster
Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster
In the first chapter of Patricia Engel's third novel, Infinite Country, a 15-year-old girl named Talia breaks free from a nun-managed reform school in the Colombian mountains. In only a few pages, Engel makes abundantly clear that Talia is more than equipped to escape the nuns and make her way back to Bogotá, where she has a plane to catch. Talia was born in the United States, but raised by her father and grandmother in Colombia. Her mother and siblings, Karina and Nando, live in New Jersey, where Talia is finally set to join them. Infinite Country is less concerned with Talia's quest to reunite with her family, though, than with the choices and circumstances — and cruel immigration policies — that led to their initial separation. In swift chapters that bounce between characters and chronologies, Engel moves from Talia's parents' courtship to their emigration to their forced split, and traces their fight afterwards to survive as individuals, and as a family.
Engel packs a lot of event and emotion into a slim novel. Often, she covers a period of years in only a few pages. Talia's parents, Mauro and Elena, fall in love, have their first child, and move to Texas in barely more pages than it takes Talia to leave the reform school. Their first years in the U.S., during which Talia is born with an "ease [that] stunned everyone," are arduous on every level, but still seem, much like Talia's birth, to fly by. In part, this speed comes simply from scoope: Engel's plot stretches over 20 years. It also comes from a bold narrative decision: except in Talia's chapters, which provide the book's present-day tension, Infinite Country relies more on detailed narrative summary than on conventional scenes. Engel sometimes lingers in her characters' inner lives, but only Talia gets a scenic outer one. In other chapters, dialogue is rare. Major plot points get compressed into short, vivid passages or paragraphs, rather than happening in a fiction-writer's effort — always doomed, of course — to replicate real time.
This is an unusual choice, and an impressive one. Consciously or not, readers expect scenes. To deny them requires force of writerly will, which Engel has in abundance. It helps, of course, that she writes terrific prose. Summary can easily bog itself down, but Infinite Country, which is almost all summary, moves unstoppably forward. The novel's momentum, which comes from intensely evoked feelings and sharp, stylish sentences, both reflects and amplifies its characters' determination, much as its fragmented, time- and perspective-hopping form reflects the family's fragmentation.
But summary has its hazards, especially when mixed with a broken timeline and a packed plot. Engel never lets the reader spend much time with any given character. Instead, we bounce between Elena, Mauro, and Talia, with some late-stage cameos from Karina and Nando. Each one is individually compelling; I ended the novel with a soft spot for Mauro, a recovering alcoholic who finds solace in indigenous Colombian history and myth. Too often, though, the combination of quick writing and quick plot has the effect of attaching emotion less to a character than to their situation. It also means that ideas and characterization frequently alternate instead of working hand in hand. When Karina briefly takes over the narrative midway through, in the novel's first chapter written in first rather than third person, I thought the new point of view might slow the book down, or otherwise twist it into different, looser territory. Instead, Karina reports on her experiences as an undocumented American, then vanishes before the reader can get to know her well at all.
A version of this problem often takes hold of Elena's chapters, which cover by far the most time. So much happens to Elena in so few pages that her inner life shrinks, her thoughts and feelings obscured. At one point, she dreams that she's floating above Colombia, so high up she "could see it all from this distance." Her chapters, and the novel as a whole, often seem to be written from a similar vantage point. I wished it would get down on the ground, where its characters live.
To be clear, Infinite Country is not meant to center on character. Its fragmented, summary-focused form clearly prioritizes ideas — how do we define home? Family? Safety? — above all else. But these ideas aren't abstractions, and Engel's characters aren't flat. Nuanced, dimensional characters exist to provoke emotional responses, not intellectual ones, which tells me Engel is out for both. If she let her novel descend from the air more often, or if she'd chosen to cover time in chunks rather than swaths, the ideas and characters in Infinite Country might have coexisted more fully, and better amplified each other as a result.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.