American Dirt – Jeanine Cummings – (BOOKGROUP) – 27.09.20

This was the novel chosen by my book group for our next (zoom) meeting, and I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. It’s about a mother, Lydia, trying to escape from violent drug cartels in Mexico with her young son, Luca, after every other member of her family was brutally murdered. The positive I took from the book is that it made me think about and look up on wikipedia the issues of poverty and violence in Central and South America which drive so many people to the perilous journey of attempting to get into North America as refugees/illegal immigrants.

I’m afraid that for me this is where the positive reaction ends. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the book because it was written by a privileged white middle class American woman (apparently she has discovered some small percentage of south/central American ancestry in her family tree since promoting this book….) who had very little if any first hand experience of the struggles her characters go through. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t be able to write about things they haven’t experienced, because that would remove about 90% of all fiction (!) but the point has been raised that there are many fabulous Central/South American writers who have written books on the same topics but without the huge publicity budget and payments from publishers that Ms Cummings’ book received. Coming from Belfast, I know it can be jarring if writers set books here with the backdrop of ‘the troubles’ with no real understanding of things that are as natural as breathing to the people who actually live here.

Setting this controversy aside, though, I thought the book was just not very well written. It was like the author did lots of research, and had lots of anecdotes of terrible things that real people had suffered and just wanted to get them all into the book with little thought as to artistry, originality, or beauty in the storytelling. I may not even have bothered finishing it if it weren’t my book group read (saying that, from the chat in the book group whatsApp, I think I’m in the minority and the other members seem to have really enjoyed the book).

I’ve just started listening to the audiobook of Apeirogon by the Irish author, Colum McCann (I’ll review it here properly when I’ve finished), which is set in Palestine following two fathers, one Muslim and one Jewish who both lose daughters in the violence there. To me, this is the opposite end of the extremes and I’m already loving it. The book is a piece of art, with poetry and beauty and skill in the art of storytelling making the experience of getting to know these men and the things that shape them a much more compelling and effecting experience. It just highlights to me how bland and pedestrian the storytelling in American Dirt was.

Published by sarahrwray

I'm an erstwhile writer and forever reader and book reviewer.

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