A teenager from Oregon becomes an illegal immigrant in China.
In this near-future novel, Kjeldsen (The Depths, 2018) takes readers into a world where the United States has dissolved into a collection of failed states, and China is the destination for those with hopes for jobs and stability. Fourteen-year-old Job and his older brother, Eli, fend for themselves in an Oregon village. Before Eli dies of an untreated illness, he tells Job that their mother is not dead but left to work in a Chinese factory a decade earlier. With nothing to keep him in Oregon, Job decides to make his way to China, paying a smuggler and working for his keep on a decrepit cargo ship filled with refugees, including Ynez, on whom he develops a crush. After the harrowing journey, Job is held prisoner in a Chinese factory, where he must work off his debt to the smugglers. When it becomes clear the bosses will never let him go, Job and another worker manage to escape, and he sets off in search of his mother. The hunt is unsuccessful for months, although he does manage to achieve some financial stability as a bike messenger and to save Ynez, whose own refugee experience has been one of despair. Job ultimately tracks down his mother, but she is unwelcoming, although she does help after he is beaten and imprisoned. Despite the unanswered questions about his family, Job decides to let the past go and focus on his future with Ynez as they strive to look after themselves in an unwelcoming land.
Kjeldsen does an excellent job of building Job’s damaged world, drawing vivid scenes: “Big, smoke-belching buses, gleaming town cars, and scores of taxis and motorcycles choked the busy avenues and boulevards, and drones rose and fell and rose again like horses on an amusement park carousel.” The book’s biblical themes are evident from the start; one of Job’s few possessions is “what was left of the family Bible, which his grandfather had used to teach him and Eli to read with and which only included the latter portions of the Old Testament from Ezra to Malachi and the first four books of the New Testament.” The parallels to present-day illegal immigration, human trafficking, and refugee crises are also hard to miss, with the story’s American characters experiencing the conditions that people in other countries currently face, though the text does not address these connections directly. While the writing is generally strong, there are some awkward moments, including Job’s descriptions of characters’ races (“Filipino or some other mixture of Latino and Asian”; “Asian Caucasian children”) and the frequency with which beaten-up characters are “sucking for air.” But the fast-paced plot will keep readers turning pages. And while the resolution of Job’s quest for his mother leaves the audience with few concrete answers, the novel’s ending is satisfying, showing persistence and hope for the future without an optimism that would be out of place in the narrative.
A generally strong tale of a bleak future seen through the eyes of one determined individual.