The Other Americans
How strange it is to know someone, perhaps even intimately, yet be utterly blind to them at the same time. But how much of that is a wilful blindness? Laila Lalami, who has built her reputation as a novelist on keenly observing the gaps of understanding between private and public narratives, between memory and remembering, returns to tackle this dissonance in her fourth book, The Other Americans.
The novel opens with Nora Guerraoui, an aspiring composer, learning that her father, Driss, has died in a hit-and-run accident. This prompts her to return to the small town in the Mojave Desert where her parents settled after fleeing the unrest in Morocco during the ’80s.
Initially, the detective assigned to the case has no luck finding Driss’s killer, and Nora decides to stay in town to help run her parents’ popular diner. The longer she stays, however, the more things unravel as she’s confronted by the gulf between who her father is and who she knew him to be. Tensions build in her family, and old resentments surface between Nora, her older sister and their mother. Even when Nora embarks on a romance with Jeremy – a likeable and sensitive Iraq war veteran, police officer and former childhood friend – their relationship eventually sours. The wounds they carry – Jeremy’s time in the military, Nora’s difficult teenage years in post-9/11 America – are oppositional in so many ways.
The story is told from nine perspectives, each narrator often picking up where the previous one left off, giving the reader differing accounts of the same event. Some narrators, such as Efraín, a gentle and compassionate undocumented migrant who is the only witness to the hit-and-run, seem to disappear prematurely, while others, including Nora’s sister, are rather thinly portrayed. But Lalami’s prose and clever structuring of the novel bring an overall sense of clarity to what could easily have been an overstuffed and unwieldy narrative.
As the true story of Driss’s death emerges, it becomes overshadowed by the characters’ struggle to come to terms with each other, and in this is a larger point about the enormity of bridging a gap between members of a single family, let alone a town, let alone a nation.
Bloomsbury, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 25, 2019 as "Laila Lalami, The Other Americans". Subscribe here.