The political is personal in Laila Lalami’s 2019 novel The Other Americans, which blends the slow-burning tension of a mystery, set against the backdrop of the Southern California desert, with the pathos of a family drama, one told from no fewer than nine different perspectives. The hit-and-run killing of Moroccan immigrant and restaurant owner Driss Guerraoui serves as the catalyst that unites the diverse cast, who sift through the past to make sense of the present and, in doing so, lay bare the underbelly of a fragile non-community in which they all operate as outsiders to varying degrees.
Among the narrators are Driss’s daughter Nora, a struggling jazz composer who returns from Oakland to her hometown near Joshua Tree and insists her father’s death is suspect; Jeremy Gorecki, an Iraq war veteran turned cop who was a classmate of Nora’s in high school and with whom she now kindles a romance; Anderson Baker, owner of the bowling alley next to the Guerraouis’ diner; Erica Coleman, a police detective working on the case; Maryam, widow of the deceased; and Driss himself.
A feeling of estrangement on the part of the characters, whether in their relationships with each other or with their larger environment, figures prominently throughout the story. Widow Maryam still longs for her old home in Morocco, and her sense of alienation colors everything from the way she processes her grief to the way she perceives Americans, of whom she observes: “They always want to take action, they have a hard time staying still, or allowing themselves to feel uncomfortable emotions.” Maryam also memorably likens living in the States to “being orphaned,” the vast physical distances of America rivaled only by the intangible, cultural ones that set her apart. Detective Coleman, an African American woman who grew up in D.C., is similarly out of place in the small town.
As for Driss, the reader witnesses him seemingly attain the elusive American Dream, only for 9/11 to temper any illusions he or his family has of blending into their surroundings. And then there is the matter of his contentious relationship with Anderson. “I had the feeling that I was being watched constantly, that the slightest misstep on my part would cause another eruption,” Driss says after Anderson storms into the restaurant, demanding to know which of the diners has occupied a parking space belonging to his bowling alley. “What could I do with a neighbor like that?”
Dramatic irony pervades the story; the reader becomes aware of motives, backstories, and secrets that family members keep from each other, many of which never surface but remain part of an intricate and subtle mosaic that renders this story elegantly understated.
A combination of physical proximity and empathic distance impinges on the characters’ assessments of each other and of their own circumstances. “I had the nagging feeling,” Coleman says, “that I was missing something about the Guerraoui case, something I couldn’t see because I wasn’t familiar with this town and its people.” This impaired vision is not exclusive to her. Dramatic irony pervades the story; the reader becomes aware of motives, backstories, and secrets that family members keep from each other, many of which never surface but remain part of an intricate and subtle mosaic that renders this story elegantly understated.
Efraín Aceves, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, is the sole witness to the hit-and-run. His fear of deportation keeps him from approaching police. “Perhaps memory is not merely the preservation of a moment in the mind,” he muses, “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.” The structure of the novel mirrors this process of memory, zooming in and out of timelines as it assembles distinct yet shifting viewpoints into a cohesive story—a formidable task for an author, but one which Lalami executes with care and precision, in a way that does not burden the reader. Indeed, where a less versatile writer might have summoned a raft of stereotypes for a novel of this kind, Lalami crafts a sensitive character study of individuals drawn from, but not standing in for, disparate social groups. The political casts a long shadow over the characters’ interactions and worldviews, as well as the central event around which the story pivots and the romance between Nora and Jeremy that is the thread running through it, yet Lalami never comes across as didactic or patronizing.
Interestingly, depicting the immigrant experience and giving a voice to people traditionally excluded from the American narrative characterize much of Lalami’s oeuvre. At the heart of her writing is a deep concern for marginalized communities whose stories go untold or are suppressed or lost to time because they are inconvenient to the powers that be. It is this concern that underlies her 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, narrated from the point of view of a Moroccan slave who is taken to the New World on a Spanish ship. Her forthcoming collection of essays, Conditional Citizens, similarly expresses her commitment to shedding light on the systemic disparities between people society embraces and those it “others.”
The political casts a long shadow over the characters’ interactions and worldviews, as well as the central event around which the story pivots and the romance between Nora and Jeremy that is the thread running through it, yet Lalami never comes across as didactic or patronizing.
While The Other Americans makes for a compelling read with its digestible chapters, its alternating perspectives, and its many layers, an overly ambitious scope means that some of the subjects it tries to tackle receive scant attention. Many questions are left unanswered, and details are introduced that serve little to no purpose in the development of the plot. This proves distracting. The reader is left wondering what becomes of Nora’s sister Salma, whose brief chapter, narrated in the second person, raises the issue of substance abuse. Why does Nora reference her synaesthesia without ever alluding to it again? And how is the budding sexuality of Coleman’s young son or the police officers’ discovery of the abandoned infant relevant to the larger story?
Despite these weaknesses, The Other Americans is a solid work that does what all worthy novels do. It empathizes, it seeks to understand, and it provokes reflection on some of the most important and enduring issues—belonging, identity, and the way these two evoke the best and worst in human nature.