Sixteen people at a family birthday party are mowed down by gunmen in the shocking opening scene of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The sole survivors, Lydia and her 8-year-old son Luca, flee towards ‘el norte’ with Acapulco’s most feared narco baron, Javier Crespo Fuentes, and his henchmen at their heels. Sounds like an action film? Yep. And that’s both the appeal and the trouble with this gripping Mexican refugee novel.
Lydia’s journalist husband Sebastian was the main target of the shoot-out. His article exposing Javier ‘La Lechuza’ (The Owl) as the drug lord behind the increasingly gruesome violence in Acapulco has upset some people. In a twist of fate, Javier has been coming to Lydia’s bookshop and the two have become close friends over the past few months. La Lechuza’s sinister network reaches every corner of Mexico and Lydia’s only choice is to join the stream of refugees making their way to the USA.
American Dirt is an absolute cliff-hanger of a novel and near impossible to put down. Cummins’s writing is pacey and engaging, her portrayal of the perils of being a female refugee convincing. There are terrifying scenes as Luca and Lydia jump on ‘La Bestia’, the cargo trains thundering through Central America with refugees clinging onto the roof. There are robbers and Samaritans, distinguishing the two is not always easy. No one is to be trusted. Hopefully, I’ll never know for sure, but it seems to me that Cummins gives a credible face to the female migrant experience.
However, the controversy around American Dirt has been HUGE in America. So much so that the publisher decided to cancel a countrywide book tour to promote the book (ostensibly) for security reasons. Criticism has ranged from the US publishing industry’s reluctance to publish and pay six figure advances to Latin writers (no doubt an issue), some ill-conceived publicity stunts (the author’s barbed wire manicure (!?) and the claim that the author’s husband is also an immigrant, he’s from Ireland) as well as cultural appropriation (Cummins is an American).
My uneasiness had to do with the action-film-style writing. Will they manage to cling on to the train or not, I wondered, as I raced through the pages. Is it right to make a refugee story, terrifyingly experienced as we speak by thousands of destitute people, into a cliff-hanger? I’m not sure. Yet, I kept reading. At the same time, isn’t any story that sheds light on human suffering a good thing? I’m still debating with myself and would love to hear your views.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is published by Hachette UK, 400 pages.