Many novels have been written to explore the immigrant experience. It helps round out the full picture of how we became a country bubbling up from an undercurrent of rage and misunderstanding. Story can be a powerful tool if we listen to a multitude of voices.
What strikes me about this particular book is how it reaches out into a small community—the Mojave— and gives us a microcosm of American life that we could drop anywhere—east, west, north, south, big city, small town.
There are many books that give us immigrant experience of entry into American life. Their breadth is wide reaching. Some stay. Some go back. Some assimilate. Some prosper. Some are destroyed. Some keep as much as they can of their original culture.
The Other Americans by Pulitzer Prize finalist, Laila Lalami, gives us a fresh look. What separates it from others is how the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant reveals the fault lines of our culture through family, love, ingrained prejudice, and the failures of parents visited upon their children.
As the novel opens, Driss Gueraoui has closed his diner and while walking across the street is run down by a speeding car and left for dead.
I saw it happen. I wish it hadn’t, because it only brought me trouble… I heard a car speeding toward the intersection and then a dull sound. Bump. I looked up and the car was already making a turn onto the side street. The old man rolled off the hood and landed face down in the gutter. And the car didn’t even stop. It went on as if it had only hit a can or a plastic bottle. …There wasn’t anything I could do. Ephaim, undocumented immigrant.
So the reader know early on that the driver knew he hit someone and left the scene. But we don’t know who it was or if it was intentional.
Driss Gueroui’s family is fraught with problems and it is no surprise that they all have different reactions to his death, and importantly, whether or not it was an accident at all. He had already been a victim of a hate crime many years earlier after 911 when his donut shop was burned down.
His wife, Marjam, has never fully adjusted to her life in America and pines for the old country. We learn right away the marriage was full of resentment and argument. Driss was optimistic and fully assimilated but we come to find out, a man of secrets ; Marjam was disappointed and angry.
There are two daughters. One, Salma, a dentist, married to a fellow Moroccan, was born there, too. She was her mother’s dream child. They are very close and Salma is fully involved in the Moroccan community. Nora, a fledging jazz composer who has left the area is the father’s sunshine. She does not know how she can live in the world without him and is sure it was no accident and he was murdered. Needless to say, she is inconsolable and at odds with her mother and sister.
Jeremy is a potential love interest for Nora. He had a crush on her when they were in high school. Now, a sheriff he is struggling from PTSD from Iraq, A police investigator, new to the town, is assigned to the case and must deal with being a black woman police officer as well as new knowledge about her teenage son, and an undocumented immigrant who is a witness and struggles with the risk of coming forward. In his or her own way, each character has been displaced and must find new grounding.
Lalami gives everyone a point of view. It is sometimes frustrating because of the rapid handoffs. And the main characters, of course, get more than they needed, I thought. Nora and Jeremy, dragged on in places that could have been better used to develop others. Especially Salma, who I thought was given short shrift. It was her father, too, after all.
It’s all there. Who could have killed Driss? And why? Could it have been a hate crime? Could it have been business? Could it have been a crime of passion? Is there anything anyone might have done to have avoided what happened?
Or sometimes…. is an accident just a senseless, unfortunate accident?
It’s true that sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s the result of smoldering embers that have burned out of control.
Ms. Lalami wrote this book 10 years ago. Would she write the same book now. I wonder.