The English translation of Valeria Luiselli’s essay collection Sidewalks is a slim volume that you can finish in an afternoon or on a couple of commutes to and from your job in the city. You’ll be sad to see it end when you look back out the streetcar window at a place less beautiful than what Luiselli describes in her book. Because you are more mature than me, your first thought won’t be “oh cool, another successful work of creativity by someone younger than I am.” You’ll probably just think you want more.
Luiselli’s essays deal with the interaction of person and space. There are few characters besides Luiselli herself but she is always surrounded by the ghosts of her setting. The first essay places her in Venice, trying to find the grave of the Joseph Brodsky. It’s the perfect set up for the rest of the book; she wants to interact with an artist she admires and so she goes looking for a space where she can do so rather than for a personal connection. Like the pilgrims who come to Pere Lachaise to kiss Wilde’s grave or leave a train ticket on Modigliani’s, she just wants to inhabit the same space as the writer, even if he’s now dust. In later essays we’re in a map library, on an airplane watching the world go by on an old-fashioned airline progress chart, then traversing a city by bicycle. Always concerned with place and rarely with person.
Luisella writes like a nomad. The Mexican writer grew up in South Africa, Costa Rica, South Korea, India, Spain and France and now lives in New York. Space is a concern for a young person who has lived without a personal place in the world. This book is the book you might right [if you were more talented] and didn’t have the a childhood backyard to visit in your memory. She writes beautifully but sometimes without depth and I wished, when my short commute was over, that the talented writer would have explored setting with the same depth that Leslie Jamison explored character in The Empathy Exams last year.