In Infinite Country, award-winning author Patricia Engel tells the powerful tale of a family divided. Set in Colombia and the United States and told through the shifting perspectives of each family member, Engel examines the beauty and cruelty of life in the diaspora, crafting “a breathtaking story of the unimaginable prices paid for a better life” (Esquire). With “meticulously rendered descriptions of Andean landscapes and mythology” (New York Times Book Review), Infinite Country is “at once a sweeping love story and tragic drama” (Elle), “forcefully examin[ing] what unites a family beyond the divisions borders and policies forge” (Los Angeles Review of Books). Through the intimacies of one family’s story, Engel “challenges us to consider that the United States has always been a place of borders” (Harvard Review of Books). “Told by a chorus of voices and perspectives, this is as much an all-American story as it is a global one” (Booklist).
“I wondered about the matrix of separation and dislocation, our years bound to the phantom pain of a lost homeland, because now that we are together again that particular hurt and sensation that something is missing has faded. And maybe there is no nation or citizenry; they’re just territories mapped in place of family, in place of love, the infinite country.” —Infinite Country, p. 191
In the opening pages of Patricia Engel’s Infinite Country, a young girl named Talia has just engineered her escape from a correctional facility in the forested mountains of Colombia. Sent there after committing an impulsive act of violence borne of injustice, she urgently needs to get back home to Bogotá, where her father and a plane ticket to the United States are waiting for her. If she misses her flight, she might also miss her chance to finally be reunited with her mother and siblings.
Across a spare 200 pages, Engel proceeds to give voice to three generations of family members, reaching into their past and present lives, from the barrios of Bogotá to the suburbs of New Jersey. There is Talia’s grandmother, Perla, who runs a lavandería (laundromat) in a changing Colombian neighborhood: a street once “as beautiful as an English country road…now a block most people avoided” (p. 27). Talia’s parents, Mauro and Elena, fall in love at a market stall as teenagers against a backdrop of civil war and social unrest, their story as vibrant and striving as a nation in flux. Years later, we follow their immigration to the United States with their firstborn, Karina, in pursuit of safety and opportunity. Two more children are born on U.S. soil before the agonizing decisions that lead to Mauro’s deportation and the family’s splintering. Karina becomes a teenager, sifting through memories of Colombia and her father: “a house of dark wooden walls, permeated with gentle voices and the tang of soap. A sky as vast as an ocean…pictures and scents [that] come from a place deeper than recall” (p. 130).
Andean legends and fables animate the novel: gold channels the sun’s power; a daughter is taken by a serpent, returned to her father “with her eyes removed so she could not see…recoiling when he tried to embrace her” (p. 108); two black birds spread wind from their beaks, from which “came the breath of life that illuminated the world” (p 67). In Infinite Country, myth and history are entangled: each with its own kind of truth, each with its own kind of fiction. Inside those truths and fictions, Engel locates the experiences of Talia and her family: the beauty of a homeland; a wish, whispered until golden; the grief of a father losing his daughter to the depths of the unknown. Caught between borders—both imagined and real—Talia’s family works towards reunion and a better life: always on the horizon, never quite in reach. With rich detail and wrenching empathy, Engel draws the family’s journey of migration, displacement, and separation into focus, capturing the grief of diaspora, the devastation of detention and deportation, and the fierce beauty of love that persists.
- Infinite Country begins with Talia escaping from a correctional facility in the hills of Santander, Colombia. As she reflects on the events that led to her incarceration, “Talia considered how people who do horrible things can be victims, and how victims can be people who do horrible things” (p. 8). Did this complexity resonate with you? Can you find examples in the book where these binaries of victim and perpetrator are reversed or complicated?
- For Mauro and Elena’s family, the concept of “home” is fluid, distinct to each character, and dependent on time and place. How does each character’s understanding of home change over the course of the book? What affects these changes? Has your concept of home changed over time?
- Early on in their relationship, in a conversation about Pablo Escobar, Mauro asks Elena: “Can any of us born of this land be certain we’d behave differently with that kind of money and power?” (p. 22). Do you think any of the characters in the novel would (or do) behave differently with more money and/or power? If so, which ones and how so? If not, why not? What do you think most shapes their behaviors and motivations? How would you describe the roles that money and power play in your life and community?
- Although the settings of Infinite Country are primarily urban, Engel writes of lush Colombian landscapes brimming with beasts and allegories, stories in which Mauro finds a particular sense of pride. How do Engel’s descriptions of North American cities compare, and what emotions can be gleaned from certain kinds of imagery?
- At the end of chapter five, Elena watches airplanes crash into the World Trade Center on September 11 and wonders “if she was hallucinating” (p. 37). What do you imagine she was feeling in that moment? How might members of a diaspora have a unique experience of national events?
- Talia is named after Talia Shire, the actress who plays Adrian Pennino-Balboa in the Rocky franchise. Elena thinks Adrian is “much tougher than the boxer. Only women knew the strength it took to love men through their evolution to who they thought they were supposed to be” (p. 44). How does Mauro and Elena’s relationship demonstrate this dynamic? At the beginning of the novel, who does Mauro think he is supposed to be? Who does he become?
- In her nightmares, Elena finds herself in the midst of the Nevado del Ruiz eruption. Although she usually dreams that she either is Omayra Sánchez or is trying to pull her to safety, Elena dreams that she is “a bird or a cloud watching from above” after Mauro is deported (p. 85). What do you make of this dream? What else can we learn about the characters from their dreams throughout the book?
- Elena teaches Karina and Nando that family protocol is to fear police, explaining to her children that “yes, they are there to help people in danger just like you’re taught in school…but in this country some people think the ones they need protection from are us” (p. 114). Consider your own lives and the stories that you’ve read, heard, or seen. Who or what do you think shapes the narrative of who is dangerous and who is protected?
- Karina reveals herself to be “the author of these pages” in chapter 19 (p. 127). What impact did this revelation have on your reading of the novel? Is there someone in your own family or community who is the record-keeper or the storyteller?
- Reflecting on her experiences in New Jersey, Karina writes: “it’s kind of amazing how rapidly language is diluted if not altogether lost, quicker than memories” (p. 129). What memories persist for each character over the course of the novel? How might another character recount the same memory? Can you think of any memories in your own life that have persisted in unexpected ways?
- Once Talia lands in the U.S., she is overwhelmed by her new life in New Jersey, preoccupied by the sense that she is “waiting for something… Another departure? Another arrival?” (p. 179). Mauro fears that Talia will learn what “everyone who crosses over learns: Leaving is a kind of death” (p. 150). How do these two sentiments reflect different experiences of migration? What similarities do they hold? How do other characters in the book describe their relationships to place and diaspora?
- In an interview included at the end of the book, Engel notes that “the idea of belonging or not belonging is so tied to the idea of country and borders…who I am does not need to fit into neat boxes and [my] essence extends far beyond the parameters of geography and language.” What kinds of borders appear in Infinite Country? How do characters’ relationships with those borders change over the course of the book? What stories, assumptions, or experiences have you associated with borders in your own life?
- At the end of the novel, the whole family has been reunited, though the threat of separation still looms in an all too possible future. If Karina was to continue writing this “book of our lives” (p. 190) past the novel’s conclusion, what are some everyday struggles and triumphs she might portray?
Source material for Infinite Country discussion questions from Simon and Schuster.