The Other Americans by Laila Lalami
★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded down)
I’m really disappointed by this book. It tells a predictable and unevenly paced story which focuses on flat stereotypes whose different point of views merge into one indistinguishable passive voice.
Not a bad novel but…far from good.
If you haven’t read novels similar to this one you might be able to look past its cliches and its poorly orchestrated narrative.
Initially I thought that this book was doing something similar to Everything Here Is Beautiful where chapters alternated between ‘connected’ characters (in that case they were all close to the same person) but here we get chapters from the victim (in one chapter he is young, another one takes place weeks before his death), his wife, Maryam, (again, there is one from her early days in America and then the other ones take place in the present), his younger daughter, Nora, and his older daughter, (who gets 1 single chapter in 2nd perspective, and yes, that was awful), as well as people outside of the family.
All of these other characters added little to the narrative. If anything they showed Lalami’s writing weaknesses since they are all told in the same way. They are meant to make us see how different these characters are from each other, but really, they just provide us with a quick and unsubtle info-dump of their lives until now (a whole history dumbed down and rammed with a paragraph or two) and had no impact (emotional or otherwise) to the main story. In fact, they water down what could have been a poignant story of a fraught family history. If I were to cut half of these chapters, the story wouldn’t suffer one bit.
These ‘extra’ character all used the same language and thought patterns.
There were these painful attempts to make us see through the eyes of Anderson, an elderly man (and we can tell his age only because he sees a woman and thinks ‘little lady’), A.J., the son of this man, Efraín, the man who witnessed the hit and run, Coleman, the detective who is investigating it, and Jeremy, an Iraqi War veteran…seeing through their perspective added 0 layers to their characters. Not having their point of view wouldn’t alter the way we perceive them, quite the opposite instead. I would have found them more believable without reading from their povs.
I often forgot who was narrating the story because they sounded so much alike one another. Which isn’t great given that they should have very little in common. It was only if they actually stated their political views or profession on the page that I would know whose point of view I was reading from.
The story tries hard to be this tapestry of different accounts and perspectives but ends up being a poorly written monologue which wasn’t sure wherever it should sound like a series of ‘confessions’ (which I personally think would have worked) in which each character gives their view on the victim and or his family or if they were just random snippets of different types of people. Maybe if it had been all written from the third point of view it would have worked, and I wouldn’t have found their voices so jarringly similar.
At times it seemed that these extra characters were merely there to offer a bigger picture of Driss’s death, that they would only talk about things relating to him and or the events after his hit and run but that wasn’t always clear. We were given all this information about these characters which suggested that their chapters would add something to the overall narrative…but that wasn’t the case either. They are quite clearly ‘not the focus’ and yet so many pages are wasted on them. Their chapters don’t add anything to the story or to their characters. It didn’t make us understand them more or any such thing.
There was also this tendency to describe a scene from different point of views (first we would see it from Nora, then Jeremy, then Coleman) which was used like some sort of cheap ‘party trick’. Maybe it would have worked if these characters didn’t sound so much like the same person.
In order to move their narrative from the info dumping to the ‘now’, the characters use ‘anyways’ and ‘of course’ which got repetitive, fast. Surely there is a less obvious way to move the story along than saying ‘anyways’?
The narrative seems to be wavering, not knowing what it’s trying to be, trying—and failing—to capture a certain time, place or community. There were occasional phrases that stood out (in a good way) especially at the start of the novel but these were far too few.
The story takes itself too seriously, and by trying to tackle too many different themes and issues, it ends up spreading itself way way way too thin. If you are looking for a superficial and stereotypical portrayal of xenophobia, ptsd, racism, sexism, look no further.
I was hoping to read an engaging and thought-provoking story of a grief, loneliness, and estrangement (from one’s country or one’s parents). Where is the feeling of dislocation? The oppressing sense of being viewed as ‘other’? These things were barely there. Guilt, fear and anxiety are depicted in such a one-dimensional way.
This novel isn’t a family saga or a mystery….it tries to be topical but in such a blatant and contrived manner that I found myself laughing out loud or rolling my eyes at moments that should have had some emotional impact.
There is this detective who is there just to show us readers what it means to be a woman. When someone tells her that she did a good job on a case she is about to close, she replies by saying:
“Stroke of luck,” I said, and immediately regretted the modesty in my voice. Humility had been drilled in me, as it was in most of the women I knew, and I found it hard to get rid of it, even though it was frequently mistaken for inability.”
What kind of person would immediately view their own response as ‘patriarchy’s fault’? There were many other instances which sounded like they belong on twitter.
The story…it tries. I will give it that. But it is also >so inconsistent. The pacing is all over the place, the switching from past to present is muddled, and it just seems not to know where it’s headed.
At the start Nora says that at a teacher made her realise that she has Synesthesia:
“She gave a name to how I saw the world. Synesthesia. And with that word came the realization that there was nothing wrong with me, that I shared this way of experiencing sound with many others, some of them musicians.”
Is this touched upon again? No.
Does Nora seems to view her surroundings differently from the other characters? No.
Why then throw the word ‘synesthesia’ in the mix? It is an actual condition not something that you should mention once in order to establish that your character is different.
The characters seem unable to make any valid argument or intelligible statement but behave like sketches of inane people.
There is one scene in which Nora discovers that Jeremy served in Iraq and is repulsed by this. The two part on unfriendly terms, and one would think that Jeremy would try to get Nora to see why he felt that he had to join (he wanted to get away from his alcoholic father, his prospect-less future) but no. That is the type of conversation two adults would have. These two don’t say anything to one another until Nora suddenly decides that…she doesn’t mind? I don’t even know! Her initial reaction is so strong that she is unable to look at him…and the day after she is just okay with it? She doesn’t articulate why she is able to overcome her initial reaction. Later on she has the cheesy realisation that: ‘he has blood on his hands’.
These characters do not sound, behave, or think like real people. They are posterboys for certain issues or personalities.
We have Nora, the classic ‘I’m different’, ‘I’m not like other people’, ‘I’m the black sheep of the family’, ‘I’m creative’, who is immensely dislikable in spite of the many attempts to make her into some sort of just and compassionate person. Her sister, whose life is predictably ‘not as perfect as it seems’ (her chapter was cringe-worthy and seems like some sort creative writing assignment). Their mother…she makes these obvious comments such as ‘I wish my daughters stopped fighting with one another’ and ‘these Americans’.
The extras are just as flat. We have the bad guy, a white racists, xenophobic, sexist, rude, who feels no guilt or remorse whatsoever, and Lalami tries to give us his ‘side’ of the story through laughable statements like: “Do you know what it does to a boy when a girl laughs at him? ”
Jeremy was awful. He was just there to be Nora’s love interest. We get a quick info-dump in which he tells us about his alcoholic dad and that he used to be made fun for being fat. And then his chapters are centred on his obsession with Nora. She is the girl for him. She is not like other women. You see, while he could brag about sleeping with other women, he could never speak like that of Nora. Nora was nice to him (once) years before.And Nora makes him realise that using offensive terms like ‘raghead’ isn’t nice. So…it must be love?
I could go on and on about how stereotypical these characters are. I read a review that said that you can tell exactly what has happened and what will happen to each character within the first few chapters and I agree 100%.
At times it seemed that Lalami forgot about her own characters…why add them to the mix to begin with?
If I were you I would skip reading this and read Elif Shafak’s The Saint of Incipient Insanities.