British writer tackles border politics
Make room on your bookshelf: Midnight Cactus will fit nicely between T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway. While Boyle provides a satiric fictional account of Southern California haves versus immigrant have-nots, and Urrea documents a deadly real-life journey across the border, British author Bella Pollen offers a lighter, though no less illuminating, look at immigration issues.
The plot is simple: Upper-middle-class London wife leaves executive husband to seek freedom and adventure in the contemporary West. Weaving together border politics and a cast of slippery characters, Pollen’s novel has an unexpected edge.
Alice Coleman flees to Temerosa, Ariz., a ghost town she and her husband purchased with plans to revitalize it for tourists. As she sets up house and oversees construction work, Alice’s perspective is altered, with some help from the enigmatic crew leader: “In the high desert, he lowers me down into the narrow confines of slot canyons … And here is the West I have dreamed of exploring, one of such bewildering scenery changes and harsh beauty that sometimes I feel that to surrender to it completely, to one day curl up and die here, might not be such a bad thing after all.”
But her eyes are opened to more than the scenery. Realizing her property is a waystation for immigrants, Alice begins to ask deeper questions: “Why do they leave their families behind only to end up being exploited or victimized, and why do they still decide to stay even then? For a Mexican with no money and no work in his own village, the ‘Help Wanted’ sign is pretty hard to ignore. The paradox is that there comes a point when the desire for a better life far outweighs the instinct for survival.”
While less edgy than Boyle and less gritty than Urrea, in Midnight Cactus Pollen does offer candid observations on immigration, secrets of the heart, and doing what’s right.
Black Cat/Grove Press, 2006.