Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

A couple of years ago I read (and very much enjoyed) Valeria Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, and now we have Sidewalks, a collection of essays from this talented young Mexican writer.

Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle), and we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts.


Many of the essays in this collection concentrate on locations, spaces and cities. And the subheadings, while at first sight seem to bear little relation to the essays themselves, are mostly themed around journeys: locations in Mexico; directions; street signs. In Flying Home, Luiselli ponders the way in which maps and different viewpoints present Mexico City and how these images have altered over time, possibly reflecting changes in the character of the city itself:

There are those who say that Mexico City is like a Big Pear – a bizarre sister of the Big Apple; the widest part of the fruit to the south and the stalk somewhere around the Basílica de Guadalupe, in the northernmost borough. But on more careful examination, the flesh of the fruit has, in fact, overflowed far beyond its skin. A contemporary artist – or a child – might represent the pear-city with a silhouette, like the ones drawn in chalk at the scene of a murder, the consequences of which exceed the supposed contaminant of the outline: pear splattered on tarmac.

The latest map we have of Mexico City (Guía Roji, 2012) doesn’t look like anything – anything, except, perhaps a stain, a trace, a distant memory of something else. (pp. 27-28)

And a few lines later:

Far from above, lights glimmer in the valley and it regains its liquid past: a lake overcrowded with fishing boats. And on a clear day, from an airplane window, the city is almost comprehensible – a simpler representation of itself, to the scale of the human imagination. But as the airplane descends to earth, one discovers that the grid is floating on what seems to be an indeterminate stretch of grey water. The folds of the valley embody the threat of a wave of mercury which never quite breaks against the mountain range; the streets and avenues are petrified folds in an overflowing, ghostly lake. (pp. 28-29)

In an age of constant connectivity, Luiselli contemplates the transition to a world where there has been a switch between the status of the street as a public space and the home as a private one. In such a world ‘our only option is to construct small, fleeting intimacies in other spaces.’ She finds an ally in the night-shift doorman of her building, a man who ‘watches over the imprecise limits between the public world and the private.’

Only in that liminal space, under the umbrella of his company, do I feel safe from the claustrophobic categories of outside and inside. (p. 97)

The collection comes bookended by the author’s reflections on a visit to Venice. Luiselli has travelled here in search of the grave of Joseph Brodsky, and the subheadings in this essay come from the other tombstones (including those of Ezra Pound and Luchino Visconti) she encounters in her search for Brodsky’s grave. As Luiselli considers Brodsky’s life, she touches once again on the theme of residences and spaces:

But perhaps a person only has two real residences: the childhood home and the grave. All the other spaces we inhabit are a mere grey spectrum of that first dwelling, a blurred succession of walls that finally resolve themselves into the crypt or the urn – the tiniest of the infinite divisions of space into which a human bodies can fit. (pg.13)

In some of the essays, Luiselli turns her gaze towards her own writing, language and the meaning of certain words. In Alternative Routes, she muses on the meaning of the Portuguese word ‘saudade’, for which there is no direct translation. Here she considers how our minds operate as we try to navigate our way through another language:

When we have only a partial knowledge of a language, the imagination fills in the sense of a word, a phrase or a paragraph – like those drawing books where the pages are covered with dots that, as children, we had to join with a crayon to reveal the complete image. (p. 42)

I loved this collection of Valeria Luiselli’s illuminating essays, many of which have a philosophical and melancholy tone. The writing is excellent. Luiselli’s words (and Christina MacSweeney’s translation) seem to flow effortlessly across the page, and one could describe these glimpses into the author’s world as graceful prose poems or laments. In some respects, Sidewalks reminds me a little of Renata Adler’s Speedboat (which I’ll be reviewing in a few weeks’ time); while Speedboat is a novel, the two books share certain similarities in style and tone. Sidewalks also brings to mind Teju Cole’s Open City, a comparison Tony Malone makes in his excellent review of Luiselli’s novel, Faces in the Crowd. My one regret is that Sidewalks isn’t longer – Luiselli’s writing runs to around 100 pages but let’s hope there’s more on the way.

I’ll finish with a quote on books that seems to typify Luiselli’s writing:

Going back to a book is like returning to the cities we believe to be our own, but which, in reality, we’ve forgotten and been forgotten by. In a city — in a book — we vainly revisit passages, looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us. Impossible to return to a place and find it as you left it — impossible to discover in a book exactly what you first read between its lines. We find, at best, fragments of objects among the debris, incomprehensible marginal notes that we have to decipher to make our own again. (pg. 85)

I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s #WITMonth (focusing on Women in Translation), which is running throughout August, and also Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month which has been extended by a week or two.

Sidewalks is published in the UK by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.

28 thoughts on “Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina MacSweeney)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Helen. She’s a very talented writer, with a real ability to engage and hold your interest in something. I loved her reflections on language and writing.

  1. Gemma

    Great review! It sounds fascinating, and I really enjoyed the quotes you included in your review. Another book for the TBR list I think :)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you, Gemma; that’s great to hear. I’m glad you enjoyed the quotes I’ve included in my post; if you like these quotes, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the book!

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Excellent news! I’m very much looking forward to your take on Sidewalks, Tony. It’ll be interesting to see how you think the collection compares to her novel, especially as it’s quite fresh in your mind. Reading her essays leaves me keen to flip back to Faces in the Crowd for another dose of her prose…and from what I can recall, the novel feels sufficiently complex and nuanced to warrant a second reading.

  2. Guy Savage

    I heard so many good things about Faces in the Crowd that I bought a copy (which I’ve yet to get too). I’ll read that first though before thinking about buying this.

  3. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like a very thoughtful collection of essays. One reason that they seem so interesting to me is that they seem to focus on little things which are often the subject of my own thoughts.

    I have heard nothing but good things about Luiselli’s books.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Yes, Luiselli’s essays are very thoughtful, illuminating and they do home in on small details and experiences. She’s a very talented writer, Brian; I can’t recommend her highly enough.

  4. Tomcat

    Have you read ‘In A Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut? Reading your review reminded me of that book. It’s a sequence of short stories/essay about travel that really blur the lines between biography, essay and fiction. (In fact, trying to unravel which bits belong to which of those categories is one the book’s major challenges).

    Great review.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I haven’t read that one, but I’ve enjoyed what of read of Galgut (The Good Doctor). Now you’ve suggested this book, I recall reading reviews at the time of its release but it had dropped off my radar. Sounds excellent, and it’s going on my list. Thank you!

  5. 1streading

    Your review makes this collection sound fascinating, particularly the connections you make and the excerpts you quote. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction and always feel I should read more – this sounds like a good start.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you! It is a fascinating collection of essays, and all credit to Luiselli as she’s such a talented writer. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction either, but I loved this one. There’s a lightness of touch to her writing that makes it an engaging and illuminating read.

  6. Seamus Duggan

    I like the sound of these essays. Your essay is filled with fascinating ideas that have a lot of traction for me. The parallels between cities and home and books, the way the idea of something can be ‘murdered’ by what accumulates around it…

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thank you. Oh, I’m glad you like the sound of these essays, Seamus; I can’t recommend Sidewalks highly enough. Flying Home, the essay containing the idea of the murder-scene silhouette, is one of my favourites in this collection. There’s a sense that the city has changed and morphed into something unrecognisable from its former self. Lots of very interesting ideas here, and in the other essays, too.

  7. Scott W.

    Tony piqued my interest in this author when he reviewed Faces in the Crowd, but this one sounds perhaps more up my alley, or up Mexico City’s alleys, and Venice’s watery ones. There you have two cities about which it would seem almost impossible to write something uninteresting. But her “two residences” theory seems to be highly personal, idiosyncratic. It resonates not at all with me. I feel nothing at all for my first childhood home, but later spaces – now some of those occupy my thoughts a lot: sharply, cleanly, and not in the least bit grey.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I like both books, Scott, but Sidewalks is my favourite of the two. Love Flying Home, the essay on maps and different representations of Mexico City.

      Yes, I know what you mean about the ‘two residences’ theory; I don’t particularly agree with the idea that other spaces are a grey spectrum or blur of our first habitat, either. It’s an interesting idea though, and Luiselli’s writing is nothing if not thought-provoking (but in a quiet, contemplative sense). I do like the proposition in the final passage I’ve quoted – the one about returning to a book or city looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us and finding, at best, fragments among the remains…now that one does resonate with me.

  8. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Thank you so much for recommending this, I seem to have missed this review over the summer, but this sounds not just up my alley, but I’ve written it down for a friend as a Christmas gift, I just know she’s going to love it. Granta so have a knack for ferreting out great potential and crossing over the literary boundaries that seem to stymy so many other publishers, looking for a safe bet.

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Claire, as I thought it would be your type of thing! I really hope you and your friend enjoy this one. The Granta team does seem to have a talent for picking winners, books with something interesting to offer.

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  12. buriedinprint

    Thanks for suggesting this as a great Mexico City read; I’ve added a link to my post and added the book to my TBR too. I first heard of her on Writers & Company (her interview is here though you might like to browse their archives for other writers–Wachtel’s hour-long interviews are legendary, often exploring the writer’s psychology as well as their books). Even though I had her latest novel on my list, I’d overlooked the essay collection! (And I loved Teju Cole’s book too.)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent. And thanks for the link – I’ll take a look. I think she’s a very interesting writer. Her latest book, Lost Children Archive (which I haven’t read), was written in English, so she’s bilingual too.

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