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.
I think this may be the first short story collection I’ve reviewed here. There’ve been a few linked sets – Judy Chicurel’s If I’d known You were Going to Be This Beautiful… springs to mind as does Sara Taylor’s The Shore – but Nickolas Butler’s is the only one I can think of filled with standalone pieces. I know many readers will tell me I’m missing out – and I have tried – but my natural inclination is for a longer piece of work. I do make exceptions for the likes of Helen Dunmore, and Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs was such a fine piece of writing that Beneath the Bonfire just had to be read.
It’s made up of ten stories – some a mere few pages others lengthier, all firmly rooted in smalltown America. In ‘Rainwater’ a grandfather remembers how to help his grandson discover the world when it seems the boy’s wild mother may not return. ‘Morels’ reunites three old friends, one of whom has a smart new life in the city, but things go horribly wrong. In ‘Leftovers’ a man watches his wife clear out his dead mother’s fridge and comes to a momentous conclusion. ‘Sweet Light Crude’ sees an ageing environmentalist take an oil man hostage, knowing that it will be his last hurrah. A friendship is tested to breaking point in ‘Sven and Lily’. These five brief outlines give a flavour of the terrain covered by Butler’s collection which ranges far and wide through the universalities of life.
Many of Butler’s themes will be familiar to readers of his novel: male friendship, nature and our sometimes troubled relationship with it, chance, the compromises and collusions of smalltown life, and, of course, love. His writing is often striking, polished phrases are slipped in with ease: ‘his sunburn now a suit of pain’; ’Her face had been made into a jigsaw puzzle’; ‘His viciousness and kindness meshed together to form their own cage’ – are a smattering of the ones that stood out for me. There’s a wonderful image describing a couple grown apart when the husband imagines calling his wife from a payphone, listening to her answering then hearing her walking away without hanging up, leaving him there until he grows old in his callbox. Another gorgeous example comes from the eponymous story as a young woman swimming underneath a frozen lake sees the bonfire of Christmas trees above, unsure if she can trust the man she’s come to love. It’s as fine a collection as fans of Shotgun Lovesongs could hope for. If I had to pick a favourite it would be ‘Apples’ about a happily married couple, together for many years, but I’m a hopeless romantic.