Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans, out next week, begins as a murder mystery and grows into a larger story about fear, anger and resentment, about the meaning of love and the finding of home, exploring the grey zones of human behaviour and the schisms in society that allow us to mark people as other.
The narrative opens with music composer Nora Guerraoui learning of her father Driss’s death and returning to her Moroccan immigrant family in California. The sudden death of Driss in an apparent hit-and-run, and the question of who is responsible, reverberates through the Guerraoui family and their small community, setting in motion the rest of the story and drawing in a diverse cast of characters
Like Lalami’s first novel, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, this is a novel told through many voices, the whole woven slowly out of the different strands. There are many first person narrators, including Nora, her mother Maryam, her sister Salwa and Driss himself. We also hear from Jeremy, an Iraq War veteran and deputy sheriff, Erica, a police detective working on Driss’s case, Efraín, an undocumented migrant who witnesses Driss’ death but is reluctant to contact the authorities, and a small business owner who has had various altercations with the Guerraoui family. The chapters are sometimes as short as three pages, each of the perspectives giving us a more complex understanding of the events leading up to Driss’ death, and the fallout after he is killed.
Soon after she returns for her father’s funeral, Nora becomes reacquainted with her childhood friend Jeffrey, and their developing relationship becomes a central strand in the story. In the many portrayals of Iraq War veterans in recent American literature, almost invariably women figure as a supporting presence, and Iraqis only appear as a way to explore the soldier’s trauma. Nora is not a supportive silent presence here. Though some aspects of Lalami’s portrayal of the war veteran are familiar, she also breaks new ground. Here is Nora, questioning herself, reminding herself:
He wasn’t the sweet kid I knew in high school; he had fought in a brutal war, a war I hated. Perhaps I was only trying to distract myself from grief. My mother knew better; she didn’t try to fight her feelings of pain or fear but accepted them as she might accept unwelcome visitors, knowing that someday, even if it was very far in the future, they would leave. It was a strength she derived from her deep faith, and in that moment I envied her for it. All I had were uncertainties.
Nora’s fraught relationship with her mother runs the gamut from envy and admiration to duty and anger, difficult emotions which are testament to the thorniness of love, which as Nora realises, is “not a tame or passive creature, but a rebellious beast, messy and unpredictable, capacious and forgiving.”
These themes of the mother-daughter relationship are woven into the larger family saga as Nora’s return brings to the surface resentments harbored since childhood. Maryam recognises that her “daughters lived in their own worlds,” and as we soon learn the two sisters, the (seemingly) good daughter Salwa and the ambitious dreamer Nora, have even experienced being an immigrant differently: while Nora is “dark, like her [Maryam],” Samla “has a light skin, like her father.”
In one of Salma’s section, she speaks of her memories in second person:
You take after the Amazigh side of the family and every spring your hair grows lighter. Grocery store clerks ask if you’d like a sticker, young lady. Bank clerks ask if you’re excited about the Easter egg hunt. It will be years before you encounter the word “passing”…You still speak Arabic, but you no longer dream in it.
The otherness Lalami’s novel explores is not only that of race and gender and class and the intersections of those identities, but also the otherness that exists within each of these people, the paths that could have been taken, the choices that are constantly being made. In taking us through their journeys, Lalami invites us to reflect on the reasons for why those journeys turned out as they have, to consider the sum of these lives in their complex humanity.