Monday 14 December 2020

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins, audiobook narrated by Yareli Ariszmendi


"The pace and suspense gripped me immediately and didn’t let me go through more than sixteen hours of listening."

Yvonne Coppard is a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer of fiction for children and adults. See more on her website.

This is, without question, the best audio book I listened to in 2020, and the best narration. Until recently, I was unaware of the controversy that surrounded its publication and will return to that later. But first, the story.

Lydia, a bookshop owner, lives a comfortable life in Acapulco with her journalist husband, Sebastian, and young son, Luca, surrounded by a large extended family. Lydia forms a platonic friendship with a regular customer, Javier. He is well-read, sensitive, loves poetry and is a charming conversationalist. He is also, as Lydia later discovers to her horror, the head of a powerful drugs cartel, ensuring compliance with terror and unspeakable violence. When Sebastian writes a critical piece exposing Javier, his revenge is swift: he orders the slaughter of the whole family, at a party. Lydia and Luca are the only survivors. It soon becomes clear that Javier knows they are still alive and is determined to hunt them down. The cartel’s networks are wide; Lydia’s attempts to leave the country legally are unsuccessful. Their only chance of survival is to take the route across Mexico to the USA. They must disappear, join the illegal migrants who risk their lives in a perilous journey through the desert, dropping from bridges onto the tops of moving trains.

The characters are complex and convincing; the pace and suspense gripped me immediately and didn’t let me go through more than sixteen hours of listening. The detailed account of one character’s final moments, the hopeless struggle for one last breath, was particularly masterful and will stay with me. American Dirt is not an easy listen; we are taken right to the heart of each scene. Yet there is a coolness in the narrative that is all the more compelling for its lack of dramatic hype or self-pity. Lydia cannot afford the luxury of emotional outpourings; she needs her energy to stay alert and keep moving.

Yareli Arizmendi, a Mexican actor, brings Lydia to life with a voice like warm honey. She reads faultlessly: her tone, pace and rhythm match the action as it unfolds. The effect is mesmerising.

Cummins, a Caucasian American, has been accused of appropriation, stereotyping and inaccuracy in some of the details. The controversy marred the publication and led to the inevitable trolling and threats. I’m at a loss to understand why, perhaps because I am Caucasian British and have never really experienced being marginalised or excluded. I’ve certainly never faced terror and violence, or had to flee my home.

Who has the right to tell a story like this? Perhaps those with a more ‘authentic’ voice have been held back by the prevailing bias and barriers that our industry is having to face up to after years of denial and complacency. If so, we must continue that fight - but not, surely, by silencing other voices. Memoir would undoubtedly have more authenticity, but Cummins has written a novel. It’s possible that people who live through these terrifying experiences will not always able, or willing, to re-shape their trauma into authentic fiction. I believe the best writers, whatever their own experience, can tap into a realm of truth that transcends the necessity for empirical evidence. Please, let’s not make it impossible for writers to step outside their own gender, ethnicity, social class or experience, especially when they can deliver like this.

American Dirt is published by Tinder Press.

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