In this story of two countries and one mixed immigration-status family, Talia is being held at a correctional facility for adolescent girls in the forested mountains of Colombia after committing an impulsive act of violence that may or may not have been warranted. She urgently needs to get out and get back home to Bogotá, where her father and a plane ticket to the United States are waiting for her.
To someone who grew up reading the giants of the Latin American Boom generation in translation — Vargas Llosa, García Márquez — it was surprising that Patricia Engel’s third novel, Infinite Country, was not translated from the Spanish: The book sounds like Edith Grossman but with a borrowed amp and feedback. The prose is serpentine and exciting as it takes the scenic route to nowhere. There is a compliment in that. Her writing sets out to be majestic, and it is, like an overflowing soufflé ... The most unforgettable scenes in the novel are the intimate and meticulously rendered descriptions of Andean landscapes and mythology, of Colombia’s long history of violence ... The novel captures the romance of the immigrants’ first days in America with a visceral tenderness ... This is a compulsively readable novel that will make you feel the oxytocin of comfort and delusion. The ending reads like child-of-immigrant fan fiction. I’d hire Engel to ghostwrite my nightmares.
As shocking as all this can be, Engel is no literary Tarantino, delighting in graphic violence that points to itself and little else. A gifted storyteller whose writing shines even in the darkest corners, Engel understands that the threat of violence is a constant in people’s lives and that emotional acts of abuse can be as harmful as physical ones ... At its best, Engel’s novel interrogates the idea of American exceptionalism, though the term never appears in the book ... Infinite Country falters only when, late in the book, Engel hands over the narration to Karina and Nando in a well-intentioned if discordant gesture to bring these previously unexamined characters into the foreground ... the shift in perspective and a surprise twist deflate what had been airtight storytelling ... It’s not a fatal error. Engel brings the story of Elena and Mauro, and that of Talia’s quest for freedom, to a satisfying close.
Infinite Country is all about making escapes from one place to another, and about what is left behind ... a beautifully written and humane book, and an uncannily timely one. In the news we see photographs of immigrant families separated, of children crossing borders alone, and we look away. Engel gives them faces and names and hearts that can be broken, and sometimes mended.