The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

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Review by Gill Davies

The cover illustration for the book is an aerial view of a suburban street. A pattern of identical houses with green lawns and tidy spaces symbolises the “America” of myth. It reflects a political fantasy of uniformity of race, class, gender and sexuality. But this is an America of exclusion, that defines itself by inventing what it is not – and that, after 9/11, and Bush’s warmongering, is anyone of Middle Eastern, North African or Islamic heritage. The “Other Americans” are just that – citizens who are “othered” by their neighbours in a series of apparently minor but ultimately murderous acts. Pitifully, their actions serve only to bolster the antagonists’ fragile sense of self-worth. How familiar this is, in the time of Trump and “making America great again.” That connection is there for the reader to make but what is remarkable about this novel is that it reminds us of the poison of racism and populism without overt political argument. Instead it works through uncovering in character and narrative the tensions and attitudes that feed contemporary hatreds. And it shows the conflicts as part of everyday living, in many ways unexceptionable while clearly deplorable. As Nora tells Jeremy,

“I used to go there with Sonya Mukherjee… we had last names that teachers always shortened to an initial; we celebrated holidays that were not listed on the school calendar; we were cast as the Magi in the Christmas play…. We were both thought to be Muslim and Sonya often had to say, No, no, I’m Hindu.”

The novel is set in a small Californian town and the characters reflect its multi-cultural mix: Driss Guerraoui is a political refugee from Morocco, secular, educated but running a restaurant to make a living for his family; his wife Maryam misses her home country and has not really “settled”; their American daughters have found their own way – Salma is, it seems, the good girl who followed her mother’s wishes and became a prosperous dentist married to another (Muslim) dentist; the other daughter, Nora who is the main focus of the narrative has moved away to pursue her desire to be a composer, thwarting her mother’s expectations. Their lives were turned upside down when Driss was killed on his way home after work by a hit and run driver. The police officer investigating the incident is Erica Coleman, a black woman also a newcomer to the area. A witness, Efrain Aceves, is reluctant to come forward because he is an undocumented immigrant and fears deportation. It seems odd that racial difference should matter in the American “melting pot” – but the hard-done-by Bakers use it to express their resentment and entitlement.

The “otherness” felt by Nora comes across vividly. Lalami tells her story through the points of view of all the main characters. Each is given a distinctive voice and perspective and allowed to tell their story without apparent authorial intervention. Even the dead man speaks, ensuring that we understand more of the background to the “accident”. In addition, while the main plot has its starting point in hostility, jealousy and aggression, the whole novel concerns the lives, feelings, thoughts and fallibilities of all its characters who are treated with an interest and respect that creates sympathy for each of them.

Gradually, Nora comes to suspect that the hit and run was not an accident and this stirs memories of earlier episodes of casual racism and aggression. Her attempts to start a new life in Oakland have not been completely successful and her return home after her father’s death revives complicated feelings and old relationships. The novel explores its characters’ feelings and thoughts as the story of the possible murder draws these different people together. Nora has an affair with an old school friend, Jeremy Gorecki, whose own demons are also a product of family fracture and traumatic experiences as a soldier in Iraq. (This is also a neat way of linking the prejudice the Guerraoui family experience with American aggression abroad.) Salma turns out not to be the perfect daughter, wife and mother. Maryam has depths of feeling only revealed at the end. Coleman is dealing with her son’s anger and distress that he has been uprooted from familiar friends and places so that she can pursue her career. So we come to see that all the characters are deracinated in one way or another; all have guilty secrets and self-doubt; and all – even the hit and run driver whose identity is revealed at the end – are dealt with critically but compassionately.

As well as revealing character, the polyphonic method is a superb way of exploring everyday lives, even when they are hit by tragedy. The running of the cafe, the rituals of home life, neighbourhood squabbles, messed-up relationships, everyday meals and family quarrels emerge realistically and vividly. And Lalami has a wonderful sense of place. The surroundings of the desert town, its, birds, flowers, and wildlife underpin the human lives. This is a rich and thought-provoking novel, one that haunted me long after I had finished it.

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Laila Lalami, The Other Americans (Bloomsbury Circus: London, 2019). 978-1526606709, 301pp., hardback.

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