'El Niño' draws attention to the issues of migrant labour

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Nadia Bozak's El Niño begins how it ends: with portents of death under a blazing desert sun.

We first meet Baez, the coyote-dog hybrid creature who, in smelling her own demise, ties together the parallel timelines of Bozak's novel: one in the present day and the second two years before, each playing out against the harsh landscape of the Oro Desert.

This opening scene leads us into the world of El Niño, which, like the desert it depicts, is sparse and filled with death and yet also starkly beautiful.

El Niño is set in a land that is clearly meant, from the saguaro cacti that dot the horizon, to signify the Arizona-Mexico border, although all identifying place-names have been changed, giving the setting an allegorical quality reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians.

This novel is the second in Bozak's Border Trilogy -- a nod to Cormac McCarthy's series of the same name. The first, Orphan Love (2007) takes place on the Canada-U.S. border; and while it is thematically related to El Niño, the two novels possess their own unique characters and lifeworlds.

In El Niño, the border is doubly a solid line and an empty expanse that creates and defines work. Migrant boys stream across the unnamed border from south to north, chased by the faceless paramilitary figures of Control, to work for little pay on farms that need cheap labour.

The novel follows a tripartite narrative structure that alternates between voices and timelines. Honey is the privileged white woman from Buzzard City who has ventured into the Oro to find her missing mother, Marianne. Chavez is her guide, a coyote who makes a living ferrying young boys (pollitos) through the desert and later labours on the soy farms and fruit farms and chicken farms where the boys end up. Baez rounds out the narration, describing the desert landscape from her pen two years after the central events of the novel.

Throughout, the desert plays a central role. Death is always just at hand, even in the vegetation, as when "a grove of skeletal cactus," is anthropomorphized, "burst ribs fanning out, arms twisted at the elbow."

But it is also a place of heartbreaking beauty, as Honey reflects while her world falls apart, "golden ground and azure sky and soft mountains in the distance," a place of what Marianne describes as "upmost transcendence."

The human world existing on the edges of the Oro feels like civilization on the verge of collapse: dried-up farms gone salty white, mutant guard dogs, ominously named Control men patrolling the borders while Minute Men-style vigilantes chase migrants with guns and the wealthy of Buzzard City look on from their glassy condo towers. It feels a bit like the pre-apocalyptic world of Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam trilogy without any of the wry humour.

The three-way narrative is an incredibly valuable device because it forces the reader to spend time inside the minds of characters who are difficult to know in real life. Bozak acquaints us with the animal mind of a dying dog and we learn about Chavez's hopes and fears, turning the faceless migrant farmworker into a fully fleshed human character (that this is refreshing in 2014 is depressing to realize).

That said, the narrative begins from so many disparate times and places, constantly switching between Honey, Baez and Chavez, that it feels scattered at first before slowly shifting into focus.

While Bozak's language is, for the most part, expertly controlled, her images compelling, some of the imagery feels forced, like Honey weakly anticipating her husband's "protein-rich breakfast." Finally, because we spend so much time inside the minds of the three narrators, the novel's other characters (Honey's husband Keith, Marianne, Chavez's friend Juan) feel somewhat two-dimensional.

Ultimately, however, I found myself completely drawn into El Niño and invested in the fates of the characters. And while some readers might find the myriad forms of suffering depicted in the novel to be overwhelming, for me this is a book about labour: who does it, who benefits from it, who suffers.

It is timely that this book was released just as the Canadian Temporary Foreign Worker program came under fire; in fact, proceeds from El Niño are meant to benefit Frontier College's Labourer-Teacher program, the federal funding to which has recently been cut.

But Bozak doesn't just draw attention to the problems of migrant labour by depicting the exploitation of young boys in fruit fields (although she does plenty of that). This power imbalance, in which racialized bodies toil for the pleasure of white people in the north, is addressed through the narrative and somewhat corrected by it.

Chavez controls the action: he leads Honey across the desert, he finds her years later and he gets the last word. Honey and Marianne equally come to sympathize with the migrant boys and try to help, but this is not a problem that can be solved by a single act of charity, however large. The problem is structural, and Chavez tells us so.

Early in the novel Juan tells a pollito: "North people never see us if we're happy ghosts. No sad ghosts or pissed-off ghosts or drunk ghosts, okay?" And while this logic of invisibility might be the key to holding up an exploitative system, El Niño takes us in to a world where the ghosts are hungry, angry and very real.  

Christina Turner is a former rabble blogs and books intern and she tweets @christinalbt.

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