American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.
Lydia owns a bookshop in Acapulco, a city in Mexico that was formerly a tourist paradise, until the cartels started moving in; now people are frightened of what their city has become, especially after bodiless heads starting appearing in random suburbs, their mouths stuffed with notes saying ‘They talked’.
Still, life goes on and Lydia’s family has come together to celebrate her niece’s 15th birthday, her quinceañera; it’s a bright and happy day and Lydia and her son Luca are in the bathroom when the shooting starts: when it has stopped, all sixteen of her family members have been massacred and the cartel gunmen are looking through the house for survivors – they are expressly looking for her and her son. For Lydia’s husband Sebastián is a reporter who is fearlessly outspoken about the cartels and the evil with which they are polluting society, and he has just written a damning article about the local cartel boss Javier ‘La Lechuza’ (The Owl) – who is also a devotee of Lydia’s bookstore: today is pay-back time for the bad press.
Miraculously, mother and son are undiscovered in the bathroom, but are forced to listen to the assassins help themselves to the barbecue her beloved husband was cooking when he died; it seems an eternity before they can emerge and call police who, as everyone knows are entirely ineffectual: Lydia knows there will be no justice; she also knows that she is ‘unfinished business’ for Javier and his sicarios; they won’t stop until she and Luca are both dead. The Owl’s vengeance and reach are terrifying.
Unless she starts running. Running to El Norte, the USA – surely his influence doesn’t reach that far – yet? Lydia cannot stop to reflect for any length of time on the rightness of her decision to flee: she has no choice, and there begins a nightmare journey where death pursues them every step of the way. Lydia is forced to make snap decisions, trust people she has never met before, but regard everyone new as a potential enemy, including a cocky teenage gang member who has a knack of eventually appearing wherever she goes. This reader, too, travelled every step of the way with her: I covered my eyes when she and Luca leapt off a bridge to board ‘La Bestia’ The Beast, the freight train that all migrants fleeing homeland brutality must board to take them further North; I shuddered at the cruelty inflicted upon them because of their vulnerability, and marvelled at the spontaneous kindness and care that desperate people can still show each other.
Ms Cummins has produced a tour de force, a masterwork of contemporary American fiction that reads like a thriller, yet explores every human emotion. ‘She sticks her hand through the fence and wiggles her fingers on the other side. Her fingers are in El Norte. She spits through the fence. Only to leave a piece of herself there on American dirt.’ SIX STARS.