Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country is a perfect weekend book. At just about two hundred pages, it moves quickly, propelled by the adventurous main story. Engel’s slim novel is packed with meaning. It is far more than a simple adventure story, and each page contributes to its overall complexity.
Talia is a fifteen year old girl who was born in America but raised in Colombia. When the novel begins, Talia’s mother has purchased her a plane ticket so she can return to the United States, but Talia is nowhere near the airport, which is why the novel begins with this incredible line: “It was her idea to tie up the nun.” With the help of some other inmates, Talia escapes from a correctional facility and starts making her way towards Bogotá.
The narrative switches between Talia’s harrowing story and the stories of her parents. While Talia makes her way to the airport, we also follow her parents as they take Talia’s older sister to the United States, overstay their visas, and struggle to stay safe and housed before Talia’s father is arrested and deported. Without her husband’s help, Talia’s mother is unable to care for the newborn Talia, and that’s how the family becomes divided. Talia’s mother remains in the north with the older children, while Talia is sent back to Colombia to be raised by her grandmother and her father. Though one of Talia’s siblings is American, just like she is, Talia’s mother and older sister live under constant threat of deportation.
The novel’s action derives from Talia’s travels and her family’s history, but questions of loyalty and belonging call up readers’ emotions as well. These questions are most notable in the sections about Talia and her older sister, Karina. Each of them was born in one country and raised in another. When Talia was younger, she thought she would always want to stay in Columbia, but as a teenager, the desire for adventure overtakes her, and she longs to return to the country she was born in, the United States. Meanwhile, Karina, who was born in Columbia and taken to the U.S. as an infant, longs to return to Columbia. Both young women struggle with wondering what it means to belong to a place. Is it family connections? Is it time? Is it ancestry? What keeps us where we are and what calls us to go elsewhere?
In rushing to the airport, Talia is choosing to give up the country she has always known to go join her mother and siblings who are essentially strangers to her. Because she is an American citizen by birth, it seems that she will be able to return whenever she likes, but due to her escape from the correctional facility, she is wanted by the Colombian police. Her decision to leave becomes permanent, and her father is left behind.
Readers who are engaged with the world around them will recognize that Talia’s family does not have a unique story. Infinite Country approaches issues of immigration and family separation with empathy and generosity. The characters feel wholly real, and by connecting with these characters, readers are invited to sit with the pain created by the deportation of a family member, the vulnerability of undocumented workers, and the internal conflict that arises when a dearth of opportunity forces people to leave a country they love.
Infinite Country pulls together many different themes, and because of the novel’s length, there aren’t any significant lulls. There is adventure and danger alongside love and comfort. Talia’s story is one of connections beyond imaginary boundaries, and it shows us all that we are citizens of the infinite country. After all, “maybe there is no nation or citizenry; they’re just territories mapped in place of family, in place of love.”
By Patricia Engel
Avid Reader Press
Published March 2, 2021