Given my weakness for small town American novels and an immigration theme I had a shrewd idea I’d enjoy Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans just from its title. It explores the fallout from a hit and run accident which kills Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant who had been running his restaurant in the Californian desert town of Joshua Tree for decades.
Nora is celebrating with her flatmate when she hears the news of Driss’ death. She’s a musician, funding her work through supply teaching having turned her back on medical school to her mother’s chagrin. Her elder sister, Salma, is Maryam’s favourite: the good daughter – a dentist married with two children – while Driss had always favoured Nora. She rushes home in shock, unable to take in what has happened then determined to get to the bottom of it. Back in the town she was so eager to escape, she feels suffocated by the constant attention and condolences but finds herself confiding in Jeremy, her high school band mate and an Iraq war veteran, now sheriff’s deputy. The sole witness eventually comes forward but it’s a lucky traffic stop prompted by a high school grudge which finally solves the case. Throughout the months between Driss’ death and the arraignment of the culprit, family dynamics, grief and the possibility of love are explored against a background of a modern America where casual racism and sexism abounds, and the repercussions of the Iraq war run deep.
Lalami tells her story in short chapters through a diverse set of characters whose backstories are meticulously sketched in. Secrets are revealed, circumstances are seen from different perspectives, interpreted or misinterpreted by others. The many narratives are deftly knitted together, each voice carefully kept distinct – from Maryam to whom Driss’ secret comes as no surprise to the detective wrestling with her stepson’s sullenness. Nora’s and Jeremy’s are the dominant voices, each with their own challenges as Nora is faced with her father’s fallibility and Jeremy understands that the traumas he suffered in Iraq may not be entirely put to rest. It’s an accomplished, absorbing novel. Lalami’s writing is subtle – the theme of racism runs throughout the book but is never laboured – and her characterisation strong. Time to explore her backlist, I think.