This week’s The Novel of Now: Micro-Reviews covers the fantastic The Other Americans by Laila Lalami, published in March of 2019. This series presents reviews of contemporary novels written by college seniors in a class led by our very own Brandon Williams. Read on to see how they received The Other Americans.
In the Spring quarter of 2019, I taught a class called The Novel of Now in our Creative Writing undergraduate major at the University of California, Riverside. It was a course aimed at graduating seniors, preparing them for the transition from the role of students into, hopefully, the writing world.
As part of this class, we read nine just-published books, each of which had been released within a couple weeks of our discussion (most of them the week before we convened in class). These were books that caught our attention because of buzz built before publication, but no books were chosen for the lessons I expected them to teach; instead, the class itself, and each student individually, would decide what value these books presented (or failed to present). All we had to go on were the blurbs on the back, the book jacket copy, the text itself, and our own opinions. The goal was to let the students start to build their own canon, to begin to define their own aesthetic. At least from my perspective, the course went incredibly well—we had complicated, nuanced discussions, and I watched each student work on the process of creating their own definition of story.
After the quarter was finished, I emailed the class and asked them to write micro-reviews of any books about which they felt they had something valuable to say. After all, they had built well-formulated opinions, and they had tested those opinions in lengthy class discussions. Ten students took me up on that email (as a point of clarification that matters to no one but me, most likely: a few of them were not officially in the class, but were simply reading along). Some reviewed every book, some just a few. We will present them over the next eight weeks, with some light editing for clarity, grammar, and spoilers.
The Other Americans, Laila Lalami
Quick Synopsis: After a Moroccan immigrant is killed by a car, his daughter and multiple members of the community attempt to unravel the threads of his life and death.
Lalami’s The Other Americans is exactly what one would expect it would be. A story that focuses on the “other Americans”. The book takes place in California, where a crime was just committed. The book opens with an elderly Moroccan immigrant being killed in a hit and run incident just outside his business. It is afterwards that an investigation takes place, and we get to know more about this man and others that were tied to him in some way.
The book jacket suggests this book as a mystery novel, even though it is actually so much more than that. The novel homes in on several themes such as immigration, prejudice, family, and love. Each character is complex, has their own distant personality, ethnic background, and personal experience in America. I do feel like many of these characters were believable and didn’t feel stale or bland.
If there is one criticism, my classmates and I noticed that there weren’t enough events in the actual narrative. A good majority of what happens in this novel is through memory. Now, this wouldn’t be so bad if handled normally. What the author tends to do is show conflict that happened in the past as conflict is going on in the present scene. This was something I at first didn’t have a problem with until the class pointed it out. In short, I feel like this is a story more theme and character based than plot based.
The Other Americans succeeds in wasting no words while simultaneously ensuring each of its nine narrators feels distinct. However, in its rush to tell each character’s story, most sections end just as they feel they are beginning. The prose is given no time to linger and explore its own ideas. Instead, it favors moving on to the next character, then the next. Unfortunately, for a story that is about its characters, their community, and connection, it never feels like we truly get to know any of the individuals beyond a surface-level understanding.
The Other Americans by Laila Lalami is a novel that creates twisting perspectives and encourages the reader to view the novel in a different way. There is no single protagonist within this novel which could potentially be seen as troublesome. However, Lalami introduces each character’s perspective as a way to interweave the plot . The main premise of this novel is figuring out the death of Nora’s father and being able to piece life together after his passing. The beginning of the novel invites the reader into the home life of the Guerraoui family and how a single life is connected to many people.
The most invigorating aspect of this novel is the method in how Lalami connects each character together. Granted, there are some perspectives that give the reader no real depth to story, but each part is engaging and leaves room for questions. By keeping the story engaging and provoking, Lalami has created a way that allows the reader to piece together their own version of the timeline unfolding before them.
In Laila Lalami’s novel, The Other Americans, she deals with important topics of discussion in fictional prose. One major issue this book took on was that of racial prejudices against one of the main characters, Nora, and her father’s business. Through the lens of Nora, the reader can see how this racial discrimination towards her family caused a sense of complacency; they wanted to blend into the new world they found themselves in. This is something Laila Lalami does often in this piece: bring attention to issues that some may find easier to turn away from. This novel definitely forces the reader to see the real-world translations this novel has. That racial discrimination and violence is still alive in the world today, even though some people are complacent and turn a blind eye. This novel forces the reader to look at their own actions and see how they can affect other people: a call for empathy.
The structure of the novel isn’t unique, but it is impactful given the plot. By giving the story from the point of view of a different character in each chapter, the reader is given the chance to get a much larger version of one story, mimicking real life. This allows readers to perceive all sides and get to know each character on a deeper level than if it had been told in exclusively third person. Getting the first-person point of view from all of the characters was a great choice made by Lalami that helped her characters stand alone as unique individuals with specific experiences and feelings. This novel is powerful in the fact that the reader is taken along several different character arcs. All of the character’s and their transformations throughout the novel collide into a thought evoking, enjoyable read.
While the novel attempts to establish this sense of isolation that many Americans feel throughout their lives, the presence of so many conflicts weaken the ones set before it. Because there are so many characters, the themes of the story are stretched thin; Lalami attempts to cover many topics through her characters—the female and minority identity, explored through Nora and Coleman, the immigrant identity, explored through Efrain and Driss and each of their respective families.
Apart from attempting to cover an array of themes through an abundance of characters, Lalami also juggles countless conflicts in her novel (which may actually be a result of the many different characters who exist). The result of doing so makes the conflicts and stakes of certain characters lose strength. While this is not a crime novel, the abruptness of the murder conflict receives no proper climax nor closing, instead letting the dangers and the prejudice minorities and immigrants in America face exist merely as an inconvenience rather than a real issue.
Despite the many things The Other Americans attempts to talk about, too much is working on any given moment to allow individual themes to be observed in each character. As a result, themes as they relate to the minority and immigrant experience are overshadowed by other themes. Additionally, the existence of so many conflicts means key characters, such as Nora, who would otherwise be limited to a few conflicts suddenly have so many additional issues to juggle. While it is an achievement in and of itself to attempt to open conversation about so many relevant topics, ultimately the overabundance of both intertwining conflicts and characters means no singular character can ever truly receive the attention needed to completely embody whatever issue they are trying to represent.
The Other Americans is at its best in its consideration of its characters. Much more than a sterile examination of racial tensions in a post-9/11 America, The Other Americans elucidates the intricate, fragile bonds of community that bind and further divide a small town in the Mojave. However, as rich a cast of characters as is gathered, the novel suffers from overcrowding. The detail and care put into the nine first person narrators leaves readers, perhaps, wanting more. Driss’ infidelity, or Efrain’s navigation of his American life, warrant stories in their own right, and the constraints of The Other Americans’ page count feel at odds with the dedication to character enacted therein.
Laila Lalami’s novel, The Other Americans, sets an expectation of reading about other Americans’ experiences in America, and how they are treated. In this multi-perspective book filled with different perspectives of about six to seven characters, all of their lives have changed or intermingled with one another because of one hit and run victim, Driss Guerraoui. In addition, grief takes most of the characters to seek something further—love with an old friend, or coming to terms with family.
The main downfall for this book was the slow development for some of the characters. For example, Nora and Jeremy. While they were built to have some problems with family, friends or themselves, there were no chances for them to grow. The book took more of an interest in their romance, which filled the majority of the pages. In addition, the author may have wanted Nora to be complicated, however, she just wasn’t developed enough. I do like that she has some problems with her mother, but other than that, her other problems are a distraction from the central conflict.
This book was in my top three of the ones that we read for this class. This one was number two. Was this book perfect? No. But what made this book so interesting was the complexity of the characters. This book is told in multiple first-person perspectives with the name of the person you are following at the top of the page. If, Then tried doing this but it did it in third-person and the actual execution was poor. With this book, changing the perspectives added more to the plot because it would introduce a new character or have a character try to justify their actions.
Aside from the writing style, the reason I enjoyed reading this book was because this book had a few unexpected turns. The book jacket sets up that the death of the father is the main focus of the book. I thought that the death would occur somewhere in the middle but it happened early on. Once that happened, all these secrets started to unfold and that’s when it started to get interesting. There was the right amount of drama and the switching of perspectives made me want to know what was going to happen next. This book is a case of different sides to the same story.
Curated and Edited by Brandon Williams