The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
Published by Pantheon Books
Publication date: March 26, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Mystery, Social Issues
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Late one evening, Driss, an older man, is hit and killed in a dark intersection near his restaurant in a small town in California. His death is at the center of Laila Lalami’s new novel, The Other Americans. She assembles Driss’s family, the police, a potential witness, and nearby business owners—each with their own perspective—and lets them tell their story, not just of the time after the incident, but of life before then and everything that came with it. In doing so, she shatters the norms of grief, family, the past, and racial tensions in America.
Driss’s daughter, Nora is one of the key narrators in The Other Americans. Through her, we experience the many faces of grief and guilt. She hasn’t been home in months, has a strained relationship with her mother and only sister, is struggling with her own life, and has now lost the one person who always supported her. When she encounters an old friend, an Iraq war veteran who is now a local deputy, he provides an escape as she tries to manage family and an investigation into her father’s death she feels isn’t trying hard enough to find his killer. Or to even acknowledge that this was not an accident.
Accident or not, the killer seems likely to go free as the police have little evidence and the only witness, Efrain, is an illegal immigrant who’s afraid to risk his family’s lives by coming forward. His situation is played off against the attitudes of some of the other characters—local businesspeople who find it easy to blame people like Efrain and even Driss, who emigrated from Morocco 35 years ago, for all their problems. Lalami combines all of these combustible ingredients to showcase a town that is quiet only on the surface.
Having so many narrators in The Other Americans works to flesh out the truth of Driss’ death, but it also makes for storylines that feel extraneous. Lalami’s writing is beautiful, but while it’s meticulous in its execution there’s a lack of intimacy in The Other Americans that makes itself felt by the novel’s second half. This feels most evident with Nora as she comes to grips with her father’s death after living in his cabin for several months. Her reactions and decisions are wrapped up with explanations, not emotions. This, coupled with storylines that falter and fade, weakens the novel’s impact. It’s a timely, layered piece of literary fiction, but while I could appreciate the characters’ journeys I’d lost a sense of connection with them. A beautiful but remote novel.