Tag Archives: The Other Americans

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami: Modern America in the Mojave

Cover imageGiven 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.

Books to Look Out for in March 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis first March instalment has its feet firmly planted in the US beginning with a title I’m both eagerly anticipating and slightly apprehensive about. Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved is one of my favourite pieces of contemporary fiction. Her last novel, The Blazing World, was bursting with ideas and erudition. Expectations are sky high, then, for Memories of the Future which looks as if it may be a slice of metafiction as twenty-three-year-old S. H. arrives in New York eager to grasp any opportunities that come her way. Forty years later, she reads her younger self’s notebook with both amusement and anger. ‘A provocative, wildly funny, intellectually rigorous and engrossing novel, punctuated by Siri Hustvedt’s own illustrations – a tour de force by one of America’s most acclaimed and beloved writers’ according to the publishers. I do hope so.

Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans is set in a small desert town where an immigrant is killed by a speeding car. Lalami tells the stories of a disparate set of characters, all connected in some way with the Driss’ death, from his jazz composer daughter to the witness who fears deportation if he comes forward. ‘As the characters – deeply divided by race, religion and class – tell their stories in The Other Americans, Driss’s family is forced to confront its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies and love, in all its messy and unpredictable forms, is born’ say the publishers promisingly.

I suspect Americans deemed ‘other’ make an appearance in Jonathan Carr’s debut, Build Me a City, about the founding of Chicago. Opening in 1800, the novel spans the city’s first century and encompasses a wide range of characters, all with stories to tell. ‘Chicago, its inhabitants and its history are brought to dazzling, colourful life in this epic tale that speaks of not just one city but America as a whole, and of how people come to find their place in the world’ according to the publishers which sounds pleasingly ambitious.

Which might also be said of Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists, another debut which explores the idea of America, this time through the lens of a professor in a Midwestern college who seems to have a good deal on his plate, from money problems to children who refuse to speak to him. When he invites them home for a reconciliation a whole can of worms opens up. ‘The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a ‘good person’’ say the publishers. I’ll take the Zadie Smith bits but leave the Franzen, thanks.

I’m ending as I began with a novel from a favourite author: Elizabeth McCraken’s Bowlaway. Cover imageBertha Truitt begins life in her small New England town, found unconscious in a cemetery with a bowling ball, a candlepin and fifteen pounds of gold at the beginning of the twentieth century. From this intriguing start, she goes on to scandalize the town, eventually opening a bowling alley and changing it forever. ‘Elizabeth McCracken has written an epic family saga set against the backdrop of twentieth-century America. Bowlaway is both a stunning feat of language and a brilliant unravelling of a family’s myths and secrets, its passions and betrayals, and the ties that bind and the rifts that divide’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket.

That’s it for March’s first batch of new novels from which you may deduce that American authors are in the business of tackling big themes about the nature of their country. I wonder why. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that takes your fancy. Second instalment soon…