Novels can entertain, inform, affirm our humanity, but also alert us to its crisis. They can arouse new if difficult feelings while also conveying a viable sense of continuity. They can evoke the present even with sentences composed mainly in the past tense. When novels emerged in 18th-century England along with newspapers, both forms were novelties, both advanced novel, i.e., new, material. In other respects, of course, the two media had divergent aims and agendas.
Fiction’s balancing past and present in content suggests a subgrouping we may deem the “topical novel.” Tending to be more open-ended, it concentrates on events still unfolding and provides a sense of our fleeting now on deeper levels and larger contexts. Breaking news headlines like “‘Our lost son’: Migrant boy, parents still separated,” and “Sweeping immigration raids,” catch our interest. But news reports tend to offer an unsettling mix of the immediate and the remote. From our secure venues, we may wonder how all this turbulence feels to those caught up in it.
An engaged imagination is called for, and this Oscar Cásares provides with uncanny prescience. Two boys in their early teens from opposite sides of our Southern border are thrown together. While his Houston dad consoles himself with a mistress after the sudden loss of his wife, Orly is fobbed off on his godmother, Nina, in Brownsville (the setting for the media’s iconic photo of two drowned refugees, father and daughter washed ashore by the Rio Grande).
Assigned the thankless task of caring for her invalid mother, Nina resides in a two-house rural property and cherishes the boy’s company. But her life has gotten complicated. At loose ends after a failed affair, she has offered hospitality to migrant traffickers. Her spare spaces serve as a northbound stopover. She has a generous heart, but her brother in town suspects some hanky-panky with the foreigners and frets that if Nina is found out, caring for their aged parent will fall to him. Then, after the current migrants are bused out, one of the youths, Daniel, seeking to reunite with his family, skips and returns to Nina. While she conceals him from her prying brother and tries to locate the boy’s parent, the two kids pal up and stray from the property, adding to the risks.
Scaled to individual lives, enduring emotions and attachments come to the fore in a quietly understated prose that eschews blame and explores the collective tragedy presently roiling our common humanity. When that is lost, we may wonder: What is worth keeping?
Dan Dervin is a freelance reviewer in Fredericksburg.