John Vaillant, the Canadian author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce—two nonfiction books that delved into the darker aspects of our relationship with nature—now delivers an unflinching novel, his first.

The Jaguar’s Children opens in the back of an empty water truck, where Hector, an undocumented immigrant, languishes with his injured friend César and 13 other crossers just north of the border in Arizona. They’ve been smuggled into the U.S., only to be abandoned between Sonoita and Nogales, sealed inside a tanker by shifty “coyotes,” young machos who “were talking fast all the time, but not as fast as their eyes.”

Using Hector’s cell phone, César repeatedly, but in vain, tries to contact a gringo friend. The situation only gets worse as everyone runs out of water. Within days, the migrants’ strange prison resembles “the intestine of some animal,” digesting its inmates. The reader suffers along with the tanker’s human cargo, surrounded by “walls alive with something that likes to grow in the wet and dark, something that needs much less air than a man.”

A descendant of Zapotecs who revered the jaguar spirit, Hector grew up in Oaxaca, and flashbacks reveal his childhood there, and the reasons why he and his compatriots left. Some fled from the narcos, from violence and corruption; others sought better economic opportunities. Now all they want is to be found, even by La Migra, before they perish of thirst. Hector recalls the church in Altar, the staging ground for their crossing, with its map of red dots that marked where migrants have died. “But when you look north, past the sand and rock and mesquite, toward that wall of mountains with only cactus growing, you still believe you can do it, because who wants to turn back now when you came so far?”

Hector’s monologue inside the tanker consists of his text messages to his friend. His language is leavened with slang and rustic similes, but the cell phone-as-story device feels somewhat contrived. Nevertheless, The Jaguar’s Children shows with compassion how a proud people have become prey for coyotes, victims of capitalism run amok. Mexico’s pyramid builders sacrificed lives to their stone gods; modern Mexico trades them for dollar infusions.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Jaguar’s Children

By John Vaillant

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

288 pages, $26