Nadia Bozak’s Border Trilogy breathes new life into the Western genre by updating the tired, male-centric archetype of the nomadic outlier. While her debut, 2007’s Orphan Love, takes place in Northern Ontario, Bozak’s new novel transports readers to a more volatile frontier: the fictional Oro Desert, located somewhere along the Mexico–U.S. border. The land of hope lies to the north of this unforgiving battleground, and migrants must wager life and limb in order to get there.
El Niño’s atmospheric narrative is told from the perspectives of three very different characters, each with a connection to Marianne, who has mysteriously disappeared. One narrator is her daughter Honey. Another is Chávez, a local boy Marianne helped with gifts of food and water. The third is Baez, Marianne’s perceptive shepherd-coyote mix. Chávez himself is a skilled “coyote” – a local term for human traffickers whom migrants pay to act as guides across the border; the designation also symbolically connotes the coyote’s place in modern mythology as mediator between life and death.
The binary opposition between life and death is at the core of all three narrative threads. The novel opens with the proclamation of Baez’s death, something not fulfilled until the book’s end. Honey, meanwhile, abandons caution and fear of death in her search for Marianne. But it is Chávez who feels most tethered to the dire reality of this no man’s land as a kind of death-in-life: “[T]his is not alive. He’s just a body working hard. He’s a belly to fill, a back to ache.”
Reading El Niño can feel like putting together a jigsaw puzzle: the narrative wanders from one perspective to another, through past and present, making it somewhat challenging to follow. But for readers willing to surrender to the novel’s vicissitudes, the pieces eventually do come together. In the end, El Niño is desolate, dark, and disturbing.