The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami

Thanks to Elena at Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me with an ARC of this novel to review!

The Other Americans opens with Nora, a grieving daughter, recollecting the events of the day she learnt of her father’s death. In these few moving pages she tells of the absurdity of the news, the impossibility to believe and process it. Follow chapters that alternate between her voice and those of her family, high school friend, and other people connected to the tragedy, and even the deceased himself. Each in turn recounts the events following his death, entangling their testimony with reminiscences from the past.

“What a fragile thing a heart was. So easy to fool, to break. To stop on impact in a darkened intersection.”

This succession of short chapters sets a dynamic rythm and we soon become immersed in the lives of this gallery of diverse people. Their voices are more different in term of what they say than how they say it, but this homogenous tone did not prevent me from getting a clear picture.

The language flows easily, reconstructing piece after piece of the protagonists’ lives and holds the reader in tension, as he wonders when truth will break out. There is a mystery, the identity of the driver that killed Driss, Nora’s father, an immigrant who fled Morocco decades ago. Nora is persuaded he was murdered and presses the police, in the person of detective Coleman, to find the culprit and prove it was an intentional act. There is a witness, who could help with that, but who worries his own life will be shattered in the process.

But most importantly, we learn of everything that gets unsettled after this death. All that already did not work before, comes into light : family dynamics, neighbour tensions, war wounds, feeling of unfulfilment, shameful secrets. The war veteran, the Muslim family in post 9/11 America , the undocumented immigrants, they all go through their personal trials.

“I was in the throes of a manic energy, as though by purging a few artifacts from the cabin, I could bury the ruins I’d excavated.”

This gallery of characters have failures to get past from and grievances to heal. I loved how delicate and gripping the portrayal was. I raced through this book in less than two days, because it was so easy to get lost in the thoughts of these characters, delivered in a subdued tone that somehow heightens the tension that is building towards the resolution. The underlying social commentary is a bit heavy handed at times, at least to my taste, but mostly it is a well crafted story. As we turn the pages, we dig into the lives of people in their struggle to belong, find their place in the world, and a kind of peace. Mostly, these are people looking for a solace that keeps on escaping them, looking for a kind of self affirmation. Nora is one of the prominent characters, and she really grew on me. Her doubts, her conflicts with her mother, the rivalry with her sister…

“Love was made of echoes like this, and now I could hear them.”

This is a story about love, the one that continues even beyond death, the one we build for ourselves among the pieces of a shattered life, the one we hold on to despite the conflicts and treasons, that get strained but never breaks, the one that ignores the disappointment and goes all over to sacrifice.

“The savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always has to be proven.”

It is also a story about how politics can sip into our private lives, a depiction of how resentment can build to the point of violence. Violence toward the others considered responsible for our own failure.

“How could I prevent him from finding fault when fault was all he was loooking for?”

In the end I was left to wonder who were the “others” from the title and to ponder how otherness, marginalisation and belonging could take different forms and meanings. Each in their own way, these characters are outsiders, unable to totally fit in.

All in all a touching and immersive story. I recommend it if you are fond of characters driven stories revolving around family dynamics, grief, and the search for truth and belonging.

“Only now, after my father’s death, did I come to understand that love was not a passive creature, but a rebellious beast, messy and unpredictable, capacious and forgiving, and that it would deliver me from grief one day and carry me out of the darkness.”

The Other Americans

Bloomsbury Publishing

Out 26 March 2019

Please note that all the quotes featured here are taken from a proof copy of the novel, and may be subject to change in the definitive version.

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