American Dirt

Jeanine Cummins

Tinder Press, £14.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

American Dirt, Jeanine Cummins’ third novel, begins with a bloodbath. At a birthday party in Acapulco, 16 family members are shot dead by gate-crashing gunmen.

Lydia and her eight-year-old son Luca emerge from their hiding place and discover they are the only survivors. Among the casualties is Lydia’s husband, Sebastián. Attached to the “warm wreckage” of his body is an explanatory sign: “My whole family is dead because of me.”

Lydia knows who ordered the massacre. Some time ago she befriended Javier, one of the customers at her bookshop, who turned out to be charming, erudite and mildly flirtatious. He also turned out to be the kingpin of a brutal drugs cartel, and the subject of an exposé by Lydia’s investigative journalist husband. Sebastián overstepped the mark and paid the ultimate price. Lydia is acutely aware that justice will never be served because the police are paid by Javier “to populate uniforms and perform the appearance of governance.” Worse, she is certain that her former friend will dispatch his henchmen to finish the job and hunt down the two that got away. Her only option is to take advantage of the head start and run.

Cummins snares us with her arresting opener and keeps us hooked as her protagonists struggle to stay alive. Such is the scope of Javier’s malign influence, Lydia comes to the decision that she and Luca can only truly be safe across the US border. After fleeing the carnage, she empties her bank account, packs clothes, supplies and a small machete, and sets off with Luca towards el norte.

Their journey is both arduous and hazardous. They are bowed and almost broken by grief, trauma, hunger, cold and exhaustion. They risk life and limb jumping onboard and travelling atop La Bestia, the freight train which carries similar desperate souls to their Promised Land. Half their battle is weighing up the kindness of strangers and sorting out friends from foes. Just when it seems the worst of their ordeals is behind them they arrive at the border, pay the last of their savings to a coyote, and then follow him on the last leg: a gruelling, do-or-die trek through hostile desert monitored by the American Border Patrol but also trigger-happy Mexican narcos.

American Dirt is that rare thing, a thought-provoking thriller. Cummins laces her narrative with thrills and suspense, but also moments of powerful drama which illuminate the plight of migrants. In Mexico City, Lydia considers disguising herself and Luca as migrants. Then it dawns on her that they became migrants long ago as they are in fact fleeing their homeland “for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”

The dangers they have to negotiate along the way are immense. At a migrant shelter a priest deals out some sobering truths in a bid to make Lydia and her fellow travellers turn around. “Only one out of three will make it to your destination alive,” he says. “Some of you will fall from trains. Many will be maimed or injured. Many will die. Many, many of you will be kidnapped, tortured, trafficked, or ransomed.” Some of this proves prophetic.

Cummins deserves credit for her unvarnished depictions of the horrors Lydia and Luca witness or experience on their “pilgrimage”. Equally grim are the accounts of the cartel violence they are escaping from. But while the book is necessarily bleak in places, with many characters suffering and several falling by the wayside, it isn’t entirely doom-laden. Humanity filters through. Lydia and Luca join forces and share their burden with a pair of Honduran sisters who are also in need of a safe haven. After being ground down or knocked down, all four manage to find reserves of determination to soldier on.

“We have already disappeared,” says Lydia at one low point. “We already do not exist.” But mother and son do exist, and vividly so, and throughout this captivating and important novel we feel their pain and will them on to their journey’s end.