Updated: Dec 8, 2020
"San Cristobal was an unremarkable city- - - small, newly prosperous, contained by rainforest and river. But then the children arrived. No one knew where they came from: thirty-two kids, seemingly born of the jungle, speaking an unknown language. At first they scavenged, stealing food and money and absconding to the trees. But their transgressions escalated to violence, and then the city's own children began defecting to join them. Facing complete collapse, municipal forces embark on a hunt to find the kids before the city falls into irreparable chaos."
(This book was sent to me in exchange for an honest review.)
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Andres Barba's A Luminous Republic has feral children, senseless murders, and a plot that keeps the story moving enough that the reader won't want to put the book down. This story creatively combines politics, murder, fear and family - - - but the best part is, the book is unpredictable.
We first meet our main character, whose name is never given throughout the entire story, when he and his family are moving to San Cristobal because of a job opportunity. He works for the Department of Social Affairs, and has just received a promotion because he has come up with a very successful plan: " I had developed a social integration program for indigenous communities. The idea was simple and the program proved to be an effective model; it consisted of granting the indigenous exclusive rights to farm certain specific product." Our main character believes that this plan will bring the farmers more money. And he is more than happy to go back to the city where he fell in-love with his now wife, Maia - - - a violin teacher who had a daughter before meeting him, who he calls 'girl' throughout the story because she is also named Maia.
While on his way to work one day, our main character comes across one of the unknown children of the jungle, which shakes him up a bit. The unknown jungle children were known to beg at street lights for money and food, but one of the grimy, frizzy-haired boys stared the man down, only to end up giving him a very wide smile. "The boy's smile unsettled me because it confirmed that there had been a connection between us, that something had begun in me ended in him." Pretty soon after, he begins to notice these unknown jungle children running around a lot more, and that sometimes their intentions are not always innocent - - - he and the 'girl' witness an elderly woman get robbed of her groceries by a group of these children in the middle of the street in a subtle but violent way.
The unknown jungle children soon begin to rob several people,and when a police officer is killed while being attacked by them, the Mayor and the police want the children off the streets as soon as possible. Working with our main character, the former and the latter try to figure out the strange language these children use, whom may be the leader among them, and where they disappear to at night. Since the story is being told from our main character's past, the book is written like a True Crime story, with names of professionals and such being cited throughout. Our main character brings up a woman, who was a young girl at the time of the jungle children's invasion on San Cristobal: Teresa Otano, who happened to 'publish' her diary from that time, which gives readers insights into the jungle children: "Often, some of the thirty-two [jungle children], on their nightly journey back to the jungle, congregated next to Teresa's house, on one corner of Antartida Avenue. At first, Teresa, enthralled, simply makes notes, logging the days on which they appeared, whether there were three, four or five of them, what they were wearing, and so forth. She establishes patterns and identifies a few of the kids..." our main character explains to the reader.
But soon, the children cross a line that they can never come back from; being told by our main character from the view of surveillance video tapes, he describes to us that the jungle children entered a supermarket after an incident with a guard that works there, they block the entrance doors and begin to destroy items throughout the store, but the chaos quickly escalates, and two adults are murdered by the children - - - fear now holds the town in its grip, causing search parties to sweep through the dense jungle after the children fled.
But murder wasn't something new to San Cristobal, our main character explains to us that the suburbs of this area usually had a murder a week all year long, and that on the outskirts of the jungle, there were known spots for drug trafficking and assaults. What made the 'Dakota Supermarket' murders scare the town was that the residents' own children began to behave differently afterwards - - - they start to play a 'game' where they put their ears to the ground, believing that they can hear the jungle children talking to them. Our main character even walks in on the 'girl' playing this exact game. "For a second it was as if I were witnessing a ritual invented by a twelve-year-old girl, and I thought of how afraid my daughter must have felt when I found her in the bathroom that day. People often remark on the self-assured quality of the invocation, its instruction-manual tone, but I'd say that its intensity actually stems from what it dispenses: adult logic, a world that no longer serves. How could our children possibly have explained to us what they were doing? We weren't prepared for their world or their logic. Somewhere out there, underground, that dissonant sound was being sent, in code: down below, chaos. "
This phenomenon attracts the attention of money/fame seekers, which includes the Zapata children. Four siblings, ranging from the ages of five to nine, claimed that the jungle children were speaking to them through their dreams. They would make drawings from what they were told by the jungle children, but state that even they didn't know what the drawings meant. The media quickly jumped on them and put them in front of a camera, causing the family's home to be surrounded by civilians at all hours of the day and night. One night, the crowd outside becomes anxious, and breaks into the house, stealing not only the drawings from the Zapata children, but also the life savings of the family. At this point, the Zapatas had had enough, and retreat from the story altogether for reasons I won't disclose here. I can't give away much more of the book without ruining the story.
Barba's attempt at making a different kind of Lord of the Flies was done well, but the lack of emotion is felt throughout the entire story which makes the characters flat, especially our main character, who I didn't find likable in any such way. He calls a grieving woman a 'whore,' and he seems rude towards his family, especially his step-daughter.
A Luminous Republic is redeemed by is unpredictability, which is something that doesn't come along in fiction that often anymore. I enjoyed that the story was written like a True Crime novel, with fictitious documentaries, news reports and books. So, I would recommend this book to people who like True Crime and Mysteries.