"Lost Children Archive" begins as a family journey from New York to the Southwestern desert. What comes next is a brilliant and shocking examination of the world we live in — one that drops the reader fully into the predicament of refugee children.

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Book review

In her most ambitious work yet, Valeria Luiselli delves into the humanitarian and moral crises at America’s southern border with refreshing complexity and stunning results. “Lost Children Archive” loosely fictionalizes and expands upon the territory of Luiselli’s 2017 nonfiction work, “Tell Me How It Ends,” in which the Mexico-born author artfully conveyed her experiences as a translator for Spanish-speaking refugee children through answers to the lengthy intake form awaiting the unaccompanied minors at the end of their traumatic odyssey. “They weren’t looking for the American dream, as the narrative usually goes,” writes Luiselli. “The children were merely looking for a way out of their daily nightmare.”

“Lost Children Archive” begins as a family road trip from New York to the Southwestern desert. The unnamed husband and wife are both audio documentarians (“plucking, shuffling and editing sounds is probably the best summary of what my husband and I do for a living.”) He is on a quest to the Chiricahua mountains of Arizona, where he hopes to capture the ghostly echoes of the Apache; he idolizes them as the last free peoples of the Americas. Hers is a more down-to-earth journalistic venture: documenting the voices of the undocumented, a mission that grows increasingly dire as the situation at the border worsens. In the back seat, stepson and stepdaughter, ages 10 and 5, spin stories of their own, while their parents struggle to contextualize for them a world that often fails to make sense, answering questions like “What does ‘refugee’ mean, Mama?”

For all four, this leap into the unknown is both geographical and existential. The couple has been drifting apart, and the mother wonders with mounting dismay whether this journey is a farewell tour for her “beautiful tribe.” As she watches the forlorn circular progress of a giant sea turtle missing a flipper at a Baltimore aquarium stop, the mother finds it “difficult not to think of her as a metaphor for something.”

This reticence to over-interpret characterizes Luiselli and her narrator, both of whom eschew the conventional trappings of storytelling for the accretion and layering of images, thoughts and details. Vignettes, poetry, epigrammatic musings, literary allusions, documents and photographs are interspersed in brief sections bearing such labels as Maps, Tropes, Syntax, and Elegies; those who read with pen in hand will find much to underline and explore.

The result is an engaging prismatic blend of essay, travelogue and narrative that sensitizes the reader for the magnitude of what is to follow when, at the halfway point, we turn a corner, and the lost children take the wheel. As the family nears their destination, we learn that a pair of sisters awaiting deportation, the daughters of a friend back in New York, have gone missing. With a lurching twist, we are dropped fully into the children’s own predicament, as echoes from the past and the terrors of the present converge with devastating force.

Readers have been galvanized by road trips with imperiled innocents before: One thinks of Jesmyn Ward’s haunting “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” In her own more oblique, associative way, Luiselli brings to bear on our present moral crises all the ambition and humility of James Agee’s landmark Depression-era documentary, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” As with that brilliant and challenging book, Luiselli’s singular narrative may not resonate with every reader. But for many, it will prove uniquely rewarding — and even life-changing.

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“Lost Children Archive,” by Valeria Luiselli, Knopf, 416 pp., $27.95