The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
Pantheon Books, 2019; 301 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Laila Lalami’s most recent novel The Other Americans is set, for the most part, in Southern California, but the voices of each chapter could draw from anywhere in the world. Lalami’s protagonist is Nora Guerraoui, the daughter of Moroccan immigrants Driss and Maryam, who, along with their other daughter Salma, have traveled to a small town in the Mojave Desert to open first a donut shop (which is destroyed in an attack of vandalism after 9/11) and then a restaurant. Nora, who is working as a substitute teacher and musician-composer in Oakland, hears of her father’s death by hit-and-run late one night and travels home to help her mother and sister sort out the estate and to reconcile the criminal aspect of their father’s death. As the novel unfolds we discover more and more about Nora’s mother, Nora’s sister, Nora’s father, and the community that has been a part of their lives for decades in various narrators within the Guerraoui family and without. Through these portals into the community the revelation of not only Driss’s untimely death but the motivation behind it come into full and glaring focus.
Lalami’s method of assembling the characters in sort of a succession of testimony gives a sense of call-and-answer to the prose, as though to double-check or double-confirm each individual’s experience against the other. Still, there is a feeling of the author’s voice layered under the testimony of each of them, creating a sense of continuity and humanity. No one character is seen as “good” or “bad” regardless of ethnicity or background, even though the characters may commit questionable or horrendous acts. Each of the chapters of testimony are written in first person, in solid terms of self-defense, with the exception of one narrative by Salma, the “practical” daughter who takes on a life of practicing dentistry and supporting a family of her own; at one point Salma distances herself in second person point of view to face hard truths about her “practical” life:
Day after day, you stare at open mouths, smell rancid breath, scrape rot from cavities . . . you have to spend your afternoons arguing with insurance companies . . . the whole thing gives you a headache. You take a Vicodin . . . you float away, free . . . your husband . . . will ask you to see a substance abuse specialist . . . he will will beg. Talk to your mother. The thought of your mother finding out about your habit is excruciating. Her approval is a prison you do not wish to escape. I’ll see a specialist, you say, and never make the appointment. After he goes to bed, you sit on a lounge chair on the deck, and watch the view that the realtor said was unparalleled anywhere in the valley. You take another pill.
I found myself more gripped by this entire chapter than the rest of the book, but Lalami’s contrast in this narrative is strongest due to its juxtaposition against all of the other more direct points of view in the book. Every character in the book appears to be fighting against an element of pride, and while we spend the most time with Nora’s struggle, we are cut to the quick with Salma’s, the most universal of struggle to maintain appearances in not only the life that she leads but in the way that she tells it. Everyone in the novel is working toward the success that Salma has, and she is already addressing that dream, pointing out its flaws and where it is most unbearable.