Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
David Bergen’s latest novel, Stranger, is compelling and immersive. It’s the story of Íso, a young woman who works at a fertility clinic in her Guatemalan village. She falls in love with an American doctor, but when he has a motorcycle accident, he’s left with a damaged brain and very little memory. He returns to the States, leaving Íso behind, who is pregnant with their child.
After Íso gives birth to her daughter, the baby is taken away from her and taken to America. And Íso goes after her. Carrying nothing but a backpack, she makes the trek on her own, heading north through Mexico and then sneaking into the United States with other illegal immigrants. She learns how to hide from the police, to stay out of public spaces and make herself become invisible. She’s determined to return home only when she again has her daughter.
As the story of an illegal immigrant in the United States, Stranger is quite timely. It comes at a moment when much of North America and Europe is preoccupied with refugees and migrants. The book is particularly poignant against the backdrop of the recent American election, where immigration, specifically illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America, became a prominent issue. When immigration is talked about in politics, it’s referred to in numbers and costs – Bergen’s book, on the other hand, lets us see the specific effects on a particular human being. It makes the issue of illegal immigration real in a way that more general conversations cannot.
These issues of belonging and human rights are further explored by the depiction of the United States in Stranger. In the story, it is a country where the rich and the poor have grown increasingly distant: cities are divided into zones that separate the wealthy, police raid the tents of squatters living under railway bridges. It is an arresting commentary on our widening social divisions.
The book is a highly compelling story. Bergen’s style is flowing and eloquent, and the world created between the pages is vivid. The highly emotional subject matter is handled with care and never overdone. The story is difficult to put down; it moves at a fast pace, almost with the essence of a thriller. The book’s excitement may also be its subtle flaw though, as it sometimes doesn’t give the reader enough time to reflect.
Stranger occupies a place of high political significance, and yet is the most basic of all stories: it’s about a mother who loves her child, who travels across nations to get her back when she is taken away. It is at once relatable and captivating. It shines a light on the people who only exist under the radar – those who work without papers, who live on the streets, who pay money to strangers to ferry them across water in the dark. It opens up a world that many of us might otherwise never see.
Stranger was published by HarperCollins in 2016.