Back to Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! They’re prompting readers to choose a mystery where the victim (or victims, as some mysteries go) is not a woman. Mystery isn’t really my genre (and I’ll go into why in a future post), but I really got lucky with The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon, 2019). While the main conflict does center around an unsolved death, the story itself is about so much more than that- family, culture, immigration, war, post-traumatic stress disorder, friendship, conflict between generations…this is a complex novel that goes well beyond any kind of ‘whodunit.’
A restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant is struck down by a hit-and-run after leaving work late one night, leaving his family in upheaval. Nora, a struggling musician and composer who hasn’t quite found her path yet, reluctantly returns home to a mother who has never fully accepted Nora’s career path. Maryam, the widow, has complex feelings toward her homeland, America, and her deceased husband. Coleman, the detective covering the case, is also making personal discoveries; Jeremy, Nora’s high school friend, has fallen hard for his returned friend, but he’s also carrying the weight of PTSD from the Iraq war, as well as the PTSD, alcoholism, and rage of a veteran friend; Efraín, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident that killed Driss Guerraoui, is afraid to come forward for fear of what authorities might do to his family.
Told in alternating viewpoints (including that of the deceased), Ms. Lalani shows the complexities of life in America and the weight each of us is expected to carry, as residents, as citizens, as friends and family. Relationships are forged and broken, out of pain and fear. Some characters fit in better in their surroundings than others, and there’s a heavy pall of the culture of American individualism that hangs over nearly every scene. It’s increasingly difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships these days, and this is evident in the loneliness and the wrenching decisions each character must make.
The Other Americans is a mosaic of stories centered around the death of one central figure, and while the initial premise- who caused Driss Guerraoui’s death?- is a sad one, the novel advances far beyond that to showcase the struggles of all varieties of Americans- immigrants, those of the second generation, veterans, working class people, parents, undocumented immigrants, children going against their parents’ wishes after growing up in a country their parents don’t always understand… There’s joy and sadness, triumph and regret, and always the knowledge that one must continue to put one foot in front of the other despite any terrible circumstances life throws one’s way.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel doesn’t necessarily read heavy, although it wasn’t the most uplifting of choices during this strange time. I was rooting for Nora and Jeremy until they fought and he lashed out at her in a way that felt unacceptable to me, and to be frank, I was disappointed at how they ended up. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, because I felt Nora should have had enough self-respect to shut him down permanently after the things he said to her.
The Other Americans was a surprise for me. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but despite its sadness, I deeply enjoyed it (especially the multiple first-person viewpoints. TOTALLY MY JAM. GIVE ME ALL THE MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON VIEWPOINT BOOKS!).
Visit Laila Lalami’s website here.
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