John Vaillant shows his imaginative range with Jaguar’s Children

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      The Jaguar's Children
      By John Vaillant. Knopf Canada, 280 pp, hardcover

      With The Jaguar’s Children, celebrated Vancouver writer John Vaillant—whose first two books, The Golden Spruce and The Tiger, were both bestsellers and multiple-prize-winners—turns from nonfiction to fiction for the first time. Nothing is lost in the transition, and the shift in approach gives free rein to an imaginative range previously obscured by Vaillant’s skilled reckoning with the facts.

      The action of The Jaguar’s Children takes place in a single location. Forced to flee Mexico, Hector and his friend César pay a “coyote” to smuggle them (as part of a group) across the border inside the tank of a water truck. It seems like a good plan: the tank is sealed and camouflaged, so their journey will probably be risk-free, and only a few hours long.

      Risk-free, that is, until something goes wrong, and the truck is abandoned in the desert, its human cargo still sealed inside. There is no food or water other than that which the migrants brought with them, and the tank is impregnable.

      The novel is told as audio files that Hector records on César’s phone, to be sent when (or if) cell coverage returns. Hector chronicles not only the situation inside the truck, but also how he and César came to be there.

      These are not small stories. Vaillant uses Hector to explore contemporary Mexican culture, in particular the transition from tradition to modernity, a movement that includes—and explains—the titular jaguar. Such expansiveness does tax the credibility of the narrative device—it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that Hector is telling these stories; they feel too writerly to be the voice of a man dying of dehydration—but the arc of Vaillant’s vision carries the reader over this small stumbling block.

      As he demonstrated in his nonfiction, Vaillant has a way of seeing stories where others see inevitabilities, and his work, here, as always, shows a tremendous respect for life—human and otherwise.