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David Lida, One Life

January 23, 2017

Esperanza Morales is a Tess of the d’Urbervilles for our times. Like Thomas Hardy’s tragic heroine, she is a good and beautiful woman, constrained by humble origins, preyed upon by men, and – so it appears – driven by desperation to murder. As the story of this undocumented immigrant opens, she faces the death penalty in unforgiving Louisiana for killing her baby. In Esperanza’s life, to recall the lot of another Hardy heroine, happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

For all this, One Life is not a depressing novel but a strangely uplifting one. It’s largely told from the viewpoint of a droll mitigation specialist, an expatriate loner called Richard, who guides us through the miseries of Mexican poverty and the injustices of the U.S. legal system with fascinating insight and through the disappointments of his own life with self-deprecating humour. It’s a story about the good that an idealist can do – not always, but often – in a world in which the poor have few allies or advocates, at times even among their own. And it’s about the power of hope and faith against adversity. David Lida sews his transnational narrative together with authority and profound empathy.

Esperanza (like Hardy, Lida is fond of symbolic names and place names) hails from the godforsaken Tierra Caliente of Michoacán and following so many from that violent region finds little option but to migrate for work. First she tries the state capital, where as a maid in a wealthy home she’s subjected to the everyday classism that’s ingrained among Mexican elites. After being fired through little fault of her own, she tries the border and the monotony of a U.S. maquiladora; it’s more reliable work, but the city is Juárez, feminicide capital of the world. When her best friend disappears she is forced to leave the shack she rented with her. Crossing the border, she first finds a motel job in Texas, then work during the post-Katrina clean-up in New Orleans, where Mexicans and Hondurans are shouldering most of the heavy-lifting.

Perhaps it takes a certain rootlessness to fully understand the plight of the migrant. Certainly the Mexico City-based Richard is a well-matched narrator, and the more so for being the son of migrants himself: a Lithuanian-born mother and a Mississippian-turned-New Yorker father. Esperanza’s moves may be her own choices, but they are all made under heavy duress. As Lida well understands, the history of human migration since Ellis Island and long before is one of people trying to escape deprivation or suffering. And even then, each departure is wrenching.

Recent years have seen several Mexico-set novels written by foreigners who unlike their more famous literary forebears – Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, John Steinbeck, et al. – have been long-term residents, and the depth of their feeling for Mexicans really shows. Jennifer Clement (author of Prayers for the Stolen) is one; Lida is another. In fact their precursors are more the sociological classic The Children of Sánchez than The Power and the Glory or Under the Volcano. As a stylist, Lida is not in that league; though his prose is well-paced and lucid, his imagery at times repeats itself and his hyperbole at times feels stilted. But as a social realist he reveals a world of disadvantage with bracing authenticity and immediacy. He makes you care.

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