Infinite Country

I’ve been a member of Book of the Month for about two years now. Though I generally buy their new offerings, I do like to look at what books they picked for months in the past; sometimes I’ll add one of those to a box. One book I discovered and definitely want to read is The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel, but alas, it’s been sold out since I joined. However, her name stuck in my head, so when I saw she had a new novel coming out, I was excited. On February 23rd, Infinite Country — her fourth book — was released, but I got an early copy through Book of the Month at the beginning of February. And since a book group I’m in made it our club read this month, I made sure to pick it up right away.

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel
AudienceAdult
GenreLiterary Fiction
SettingColombia; USA
Number of Pages191
Publication DateFebruary 23, 2021

Summary

Infinite Country follows a Colombian family divided by strict immigration laws for decades. In the 1990s and 2000s, we get to know Mauro and Elena, from when they fell in love to when they first become parents to when the emigrated to the United States. Despite planning only to make some money then return to Colombia before their tourist visas expire, circumstances lead to a new choice: to stay in America and make a life there.

Interspersed between these chapters, we follow their youngest daughter Talia, now a teenager. After committing an abrupt crime and being locked away in a religious institution, she’s on the run, trying to make it home to her father in time to catch her flight to the United States. Though a U.S. citizen by birth, she hasn’t seen her mother and two siblings since she was an infant, growing up only with her dad and grandmother. But is a reunion of this broken family possible?

It’s a sparse book, at less than 200 pages, yet Infinite Country is both tender and eye-opening. It will inspire empathy and understanding for a group of people that is so often denigrated in media and politics.

Review

In all honesty, Infinite Country is a hard book to review. I enjoyed the novel and I cared about the characters… but I feel that I didn’t fully connect with them. Perhaps it’s that it is largely written in third person. Ordinarily, I don’t care too much whether a book is in first or third person. Depending on the story, either can work well, and I generally find them equally absorbing. However, the story in Infinite Country is so tender and nuanced that I wanted to step further into the family, the way only first person narration can allow.

Patricia Engel has written a beautiful and heart-wrenching story that feels all too real. I love how Infinite Country sheds light on a community of people — “illegal” immigrants — that’s so often demonized in our media. This novel depicts an ordinary family with good intentions. They don’t always make the “best” choices, but they don’t always have great options, either. We can see why Mauro and Elena made the choices that they did, how they didn’t intend to break the law or rip apart their own family. Indeed, they do what they can with what they have, but the United States’ harsh immigration laws aren’t forgiving or generous.

Throughout the novel, I enjoyed following Mauro and Elena, from Colombia in the 1990s to the U.S. in the early 2000s. While their past slowly comes into focus, the modern-day present — centered on their youngest daughter, Talia — keeps us wondering how it all ended up this way. How did these parents end up stuck in different countries? What will Talia’s return to the U.S. mean for their broken family?

Perhaps Talia was the character I didn’t connect with enough, more so than her parents. She always felt a bit out of reach for me. Maybe if her parts had been told from her own perspective, the story would have been that much stronger.

Regardless, I found Infinite Country to be a profound and thought-provoking novel. It may be sparse at only 191 pages, but it packs a punch. It left me with three main takeaways, messages I wish all Americans — and people around the world more widely — would embrace:

  1. We need to have greater understanding of and empathy for immigrants. They are far too often demonized and they don’t deserve such vitriol. Where’s our compassion?
  2. We should make immigration much easier. For refugees, of course, but also for people that simply want to live in another country. We need new ways to immigrate that are attainable for more people.
  3. Honestly, why do we need borders? I fully believe we should have open borders, somewhat like how most of Europe is. We live in a connected world, and people shouldn’t be so restricted to wherever they happened to be born. We should have more freedom to move around.

Infinite Country is a beautiful example of how a novel can illuminate an experience that is so misunderstood. Books can and do make people more empathetic, and that can only help humanity. This may not be the warmest book, but it is one that is powerful and eye-opening.

Final Thoughts

Infinite Country is an impactful and intimate novel that will open your eyes to the hardships immigrants face. It’s heart-wrenching and sure to make you rethink why our borders are so strictly closed off. I truly enjoyed this novel, and will add Patricia Engel’s other books to my list. I’m especially interested in reading It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris and The Veins of the Ocean, so look out for my reviews of those in the future.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

About the Author

Patricia Engel is the author of The Veins of the Ocean, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, winner of an International Latino Book Award; and Vida, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and Young Lions Fiction Awards, a New York Times Notable Book, and winner of Colombia’s national book award, the Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories appear in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. Born to Colombian parents, Patricia teaches creative writing at the University of Miami.

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