Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Title: The Other Americans
Author: Laila Lalami
Publisher: Pantheon
Pages: 320
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐

In these times of heated debate about migration policies, about the rights of those seeking refuge or the right to build their lives in America, this book takes us into the lives of some other Americans. They are first- or second-generation immigrants, all wanting a piece of the American Dream for themselves.

The book is presented to us from multiple viewpoints. We have here the first-person point of view of Nora, her father Driss Guerraoul, her mother Maryam, childhood friend Jeremy Gorecki who is now a police officer, investigating officer Erica Coleman, and Efrain, an undocumented person who witnessed the accident. We also read of the first-person account of Anderson Baker, who runs the bowling alley next to Driss’ diner.

Driss Guerraoul is killed in a hit-and-run accident while returning home from the diner he owns. The police don’t treat the investigation with the seriousness it deserves, reserving the tough questions (did he drink, gamble or do drugs, have enemies, owe money?) for the dead man’s widow instead of pursuing the driver of the car.

Nora, a jazz composer born to immigrant parents, is upset about her father’s death. He was the only one to believe in her, unlike her mother, who was only proud of her older daughter’s achievements. Nora’s father had rejected the theory that his younger daughter was slow and that there was something wrong with her. Affected by a syndrome called synesthesia, Nora used to hear music in colours, a phenomenon not unheard of among those who show a talent for music.

Nora’s sister, Salma, is not happy about the fact that their father named Nora the beneficiary of his insurance policy.

Then Nora learns of her father’s affair with a much younger woman, and of how he planned to leave her mother, and it makes her feel differently towards him.
Her POV also gives us a peek into the world of music, with compositions and festivals that she struggles to make a mark in.

Jeremy is an insomnia suffering part time police officer who is pursuing his education. His account tells us about his friend Fierro, who he met in the War, and Fierro’s ex-wife Mary, and his boss, Vasco, and at first we don’t see why we are being told about these people.

Efrain is the first to witness the accident that claims the life of Driss. He flees the scene of the crime, afraid of calling attention to his undocumented status and losing the life that he and his wife Marisela have been able to build for their two little kids.

Maryam’s account tells us of her struggle to get her idealist husband to move from Morocco to California with three-year-old Salma and of the struggles they faced in their new country.

Driss’ account takes us on a ride into the past, back in Morocco, and the unrest they sought to escape.

Erica’s account shows us her own personal struggle with a workaholic husband and a son who isn’t doing well at school at all, and her professional struggle in trying to solve the crime. All she has are particles of the paint from the car to work with.

Each account tells us something more about the people. They are all facing their own troubles, living their own lives, while being connected with the dead man somehow.

The tragedy of a sudden death lies in how many things are left undone, the things that can never be again.

I found it odd that the author seemed so reluctant to give us the last names of the characters.

Nora, cheated on by all the men she has had relationships with, feels used and discarded. Jeremy has fought in the War, and is broken by his mother’s death and his father’s alcoholism. I longed to have these two broken people come together.

Along the way, the author makes interesting observations about the nature of memory:
Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts, and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember.

How strange the work of memory… What some people remembered and others forgot.

She also talks about the struggles that immigrants, particularly Muslims, face:

Growing up in this town, I had long ago learned that the savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always had to be proven.

In the end, Nora does get the answer to her father’s death, but how she reacts to it is a different story.

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