As a non-fiction writer, John Vaillant has authored two critically lauded page-turners enlivened by high drama, gripping suspense, and other characteristics of the best crime fiction. The Golden Spruce, which detailed the destruction of an iconic conifer on B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands (and which won a Governor General’s Literary Award), and The Tiger, about a man-eating Siberian feline in remote Russia, were all the more enthralling for their documentary verité. Both books were exemplars of so-called “literary non-fiction.”
Now, the Vancouver writer turns his hand to fiction, with similar, if not quite as masterful, results. The Jaguar’s Children is another story of myth, madness, greed, and survival. It isn’t a true story, but a resemblance between the narrative and real events is easily imagined.
Narrator Hector joins a group of Mexican migrants who have paid unscrupulous “coyotes” (human traffickers) to move them across the U.S. border inside the steel tank of a water truck. After extorting what they can from their passengers, the coyotes abandon the vehicle, leaving its trapped cargo to die of thirst. Hector’s one lifeline is the cellphone of his companion, Cesar, a biologist who has been forced to flee Mexico after uncovering incriminating evidence against a powerful manufacturer of genetically modified corn. With Cesar lying unconscious beside him, Hector tries desperately to communicate with one of Cesar’s American contacts. As time ticks away and Hector becomes increasingly delirious from thirst, he uses the phone’s dwindling charge to create a series of sound files relaying the story of his own Zapotec ancestry, as well as the circumstances behind Cesar’s peril.
The Jaguar’s Children shares themes with Vaillant’s earlier books, particularly the toxic convergence of cultures. It also reflects the author’s considerable storytelling gifts. The story of Hector’s grandfather includes enough rich material for a novel unto itself. For all its virtues, however, The Jaguar’s Children leaves the impression of two different kinds of books – a suspenseful thriller and a literary family saga – struggling uneasily to cohere.