American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Someone asked me the other day why I only seem to give high scores for books. Well, the answer to that is twofold:

  1. I only review books that I finish.
  2. If I’m not enjoying a book, I won’t finish it.

And treading water somewhere in there we have books that I didn’t enjoy so much, but. for some reason, were too compelling to put down.

Which brings me to American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a book that seems to have taken me the best part of two months to finish.

Okay, so let’s start with the good, the excellent in fact. This is a great story: Lydia and her young son, Luca, are trying to flee Mexico after their entire family is murdered at a family gathering. Their desperate two-thousand mile trek by train and on foot takes them through a serious of heart-stopping encounters with the very best and worst of humanity. The characterisations are suburb, the tension almost unbearable, and if you’re wondering why anyone would put themselves and their children at risk (being robbed is the inevitable; being murdered, raped, kidnapped or sold into slavery are highly likely) to enter a foreign country, then here’s a clue: it isn’t money.

So what was the problem? Well, for me, the book was a little bit overcooked. I love a good literary romp (Exit West, Silk), but I got the feeling that this was trying a bit too hard: things were said, then said again in a slightly different way, which didn’t alway bring a new perspective to the situation. Large swathes of internal stream of consciousness bogged the story down in places, which led to me (horror!) skipping the odd paragraph here and there. This is a shame because I probably missed some sharp dialogue, which was top-notch throughout.

The story is told from a third-person, omniscient viewpoint that slips in and out of the characters’ head, skips back and sometimes forward in time to tell you what they might think of the horrors they’ve endured years from now when it’s all over (though I think we can safely say that no one would ever fully recover from such an undertaking). For the most part, I didn’t have a problem with this, but on occasion, it did make the story drag a little.

Would I recommend it? On the whole, yes; and stick with it: the end is well worth it.

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