The other Americans

by Laila Lalami

Hardcover, 2019





New York : Pantheon Books, [2019]


"From the Pulitzer Prize finalist, author of The Moor's Account--a timely and powerful new novel about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant that is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story, all of it informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture. Nora Guerraoui, a jazz composer, returns home to a small town in the Mojave after hearing that her father, owner of a popular restaurant there, has been killed in a suspicious hit-and-run car accident. Told by multiple narrators--Nora herself, Jeremy (the Iraq war veteran with whom she develops an intimacy), widow Maryam, Efrain (an immigrant witness to the accident who refuses to get involved for fear of deportation), Coleman (the police investigator), and Driss (the dead man himself), The Other Americans deftly explores one family's secrets and hypocrisies even as it offers a portrait of Americans riven by race, class, and religion, living side by side, yet ignorant of the vicissitudes that each tribe, as it were, faces" --… (more)

Media reviews

For the reader, the novel presents something of a Rorschach test. Will our belief and sympathy depend on the speaker’s racial or gender identity, or perhaps his or her age? What if the perpetrators have no interest in being forgiven? What if we never really believed in truth, only persuasion?
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Throughout the novel, Lalami’s attention to contrast and contradiction is stunning. Her prose is incisive and lived-in, as though culled from decades of listening in on private conversations between older family members. In this, Nora’s chapters are the strongest. Through her voice, readers most clearly feel the central tension of the novel: the Guerraouis’ deep desire to belong to a country that vilifies people like them.
“The Other Americans” manages to be many books at once: a gripping literary thriller, a complex love story and a sharp critique of an America wracked by war and hatred, divided against itself, constantly near a breaking point. And Lalami succeeds admirably on all fronts: The novel is intricately plotted, up to its shocking but unforced end. There are no unnecessary plot twists; Lalami is an intelligent author who’s not in love with her own cleverness.
[Lalami] shows how we are all "other," not just to our fellows, but to ourselves. A person capable of a ghastly crime might also be capable of deep feeling for other creatures. People who were once closer than lovers can drift apart, and lovers can become strangers within weeks, or decades.
The Other Americans demonstrates brilliantly, in ways foreseen and unforeseen, as often denied as acknowledged, how the personal and political enmesh in all our lives.
In all, Lalami never loses the touch of human dignity in her cast of characters, allowing her to slip between points of view with ease.
The Other Americans is a novel that investigates humanity, and as Efraín asserts while eating dinner, “So much depends on the little things.” A truth that, through Lalami’s perceptive prose, the novel never forgets.
Whether or not Lalami—the author of meticulous spins on the refugee saga (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits), the coming-of-age tale (Secret Son) and the slave narrative (The Moor’s Account)—has Crash specifically in mind, The Other Americans is a forceful corrective to a certain kind of story that’s “ripped from the headlines” and “sparks a national conversation” before earning a fistful of Oscars. In part, this is a matter of careful characterization; Maryam’s heartbreaking memory of a failed attempt to befriend a stranger over baking tips, in which her need to connect comes up against the limits of communication, is as particular a rendering of the immigrant’s social isolation as I’ve ever encountered.
There is an undeniable perfunctoriness to all this; it feels as though Lalami is checking off a list of groups that social justice advocates have designated — however accurately — as disadvantaged. Moreover, she will at times skimp on showing in favor of telling, as with Nora’s rueful recollection, “Growing up in this town, I had long ago learned that the savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always had to be proven.”
The whodunit element of the novel is interesting enough, but it is evident from the get-go that this isn’t the mystery Lalami cares to explore. Even superficial fans of murder mysteries will easily guess the identity of the driver somewhere along the way. What’s more riveting are the secrets behind each narrator. As each picks up the thread of the story, they reveal delicious morsels about themselves that prove to be more gasp-worthy than any clue regarding the killer.
Unflashy almost to the point of comedy, happy to include humdrum dialogue about, say, weather or food seasoning, the novel’s round-robin mode nonetheless accumulates a kind of revelatory power, setting aside top-down commentary in favour of side-by-side juxtaposition – a narrative style that ultimately functions as a plea for more listening, as well as highlighting the quiet irony of the title, which ends up being hard to read as anything more than just “Americans”.
What a monumental challenge it is to reveal the state of America, to assert what unites and divides us — and what remarkable insight Lalami demonstrates by doing just that. Her interrogation is rigorous, and her provocations — about love’s dangerous power, the ties between resentment and privilege — resonate through to the last page.
We do not read fiction to wring our hands at yet another crisis precipitated by racism but to discover some larger truth. For that we need breadth and depth. Lalami’s novel, lacking focus, falters on both counts.
In a narrative that succeeds as mystery and love story, family and character study, Lalami captures the complex ways humans can be strangers not just outside their “tribes” but within them, as well as to themselves.
The ending is a bit pat, but Lalami expertly mines an American penchant for rendering the “other.”

User reviews

LibraryThing member Dreesie
There were some things I loved about this novel: first, the setting. I'm pretty sure this is the first novel I have read set in Yucca Valley. You go through Yucca Valley to get to the back entrance to Joshua Tree NP. Lalami teaches at UC Riverside, and she gets the oppresive heat, the Joshua trees, the emptiness.

She also has a recurring error in this book. THERE ARE NO TUTLEDOVES IN CALIFORNIA. In North America! How did this get through? It is repeated many times. Nora's doves are most likely mourning doves, your standard North American A/C-nester. There's an off chance they could be introduced collared doves, I have no idea if those live out in the desert, or a native but much less common ground dove (again, I have no idea if these nest in the desert). But there's a 99% chance they are mourning doves. So why call them turtledoves? This was honestly infuriating and disrupting to the story for me.

The story itself is good, but nothing (including the "twist") was surprising. Nora heads from the Bay Area back home to Yucca Valley when her father is killed in a hit and run accident. Her father was very supportive of her musical ambitions, but her mother never has been. She is trapped with her mother and perfect married, dentist, mother of two sister. Political refugees from Morocco, her parents did their best in California, but her mother still regrets the upper class life the academic life they left behind. As Nora learns more about her father, she also meets up with a couple of her high school classmates who are still in town.
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LibraryThing member Perednia
A beautiful, real world novel about Americans of many cultures, ages and backgrounds that is made up of multiple voices. They are all compelling and heartfelt. In a story made up of numerous little moments, the novel adds up to a sweeping, panoramic view of real people living real lives. This is a masterwork.
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
The Other Americans, Laila Lalami, author; Mozhan Marno, P.J. Ochlan, Adenrele Ojo, narrators
“The Other Americans” is ostensibly a mystery about an accident investigation. An elderly man was killed on a poorly lit road, in a hit and run accident. The police believe it was simply an accident, but one of the victim’s daughters believes it was an intentional act because of the historic issues the driver of the vehicle had with her father. Their businesses were adjacent to each other. The driver, someone depicted as angry and rude, perhaps a white supremacist, owned a bowling alley located next to the diner that was owned by the victim, an immigrant from Morocco. The family had experienced racial incidents in the past. The two owners were dealing with many contentious issues, i.e. parking, lighting, etc.
Through the musings of several characters, the widow, the daughters, the police officers and the accused, the readers learn about the abuse that immigrants face in America. They learn about the horrors faced by the soldiers who fought in the Iraq war, and they learn about the fears of the illegal Mexican immigrants, who are afraid to speak to the police when they have witnessed crimes. They learn about the verbal slurs and the bullying that these immigrants, who are the “other” Americans, have to deal with in their daily lives. The readers learn about how these many abuses in business, schools and in social and personal situations alter their behavior and affect their decisions and choices.
Nora is the victim’s daughter. She is sure that her father, Driss, was intentionally run down by the driver of the vehicle in the accident. She is sure he was murdered. She was recently jilted by a married man and is nursing that loss as well as the loss of her parent. Her sister, Salma, is angry that her father’s will left more money to Nora. She has always been the practical daughter who has sacrificed for her family, doing what is expected of her, not what she would like to do. She seeks solace from life’s difficulties with opiates. Her mother, Maryam, is aware that her husband has been unfaithful, before his death, but she chooses to excuse his behavior in order to preserve the memory of their 37 years together.
The person investigating the hit and run is Detective Coleman, a black woman police officer who has had to buck the system and deal with issues of racism throughout her life. She has admirably set an example, with her own behavior, to overcome these injustices. Her son is a loner and her need to help him socialize falls on the deaf ears of her husband who is too busy watching sporting events.
Jeremy, who works with Coleman, served in the Iraq war and has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. His military experience has sometimes affected his judgment and he suffers from insomnia brought on by his war memories. He is a cop and a student, and sometimes, as a cop, he is smug and takes advantage of his power unjustly. He and Nora were in high school together.
The witness of the hit and run, Efrain, is a man with a Mexican background who is afraid to come forward with his evidence. His child goes to school with the grandchildren of the victim. His wife wants him to tell the police what he saw for the reward offered. At first he is afraid to come forward, but she prevails.
The man who was suspected of driving the car in the accident sounds like a white supremacist and a racist for sure. Anderson owns the bowling alley next door to the victim’s diner. He has a son, AJ. His son’s pet business has recently failed forcing him to move in with his parents. AJ also went to school with the victim’s daughter, Nora, and the police officer, Jeremy. As a matter of fact, he bullied both Nora and Jeremy in high school using racist slurs and other insults as he intimidated them.
There isn’t a character in the book without a serious problem of some kind. It feels like there are “eight million stories in this naked desert city” to borrow a phrase from an old television show. Every character has been betrayed in some way by his country, his friends, enemies or lovers. Every character seems to be lonely and unfulfilled. The characters are searching for solutions to their problems and some are more successful than others. Some make choices that are not main stream or healthy.
The several narrators of this audio book do an admirable job of defining the accent and personality of each of the characters. However, there are almost too many characters and issues. Each of the characters seems to place blame on others for their failures without ever considering that they might be the ones making the poor choices.
This book has had very good reviews. I imagine one of the reasons is that it includes every controversial issue of the day: family dynamics, illegal immigration, drug addiction, coping mechanisms, health care, the VA, suicide, anger management and support groups, bullying, equality for women, racism, sexual relationships, romance, infidelity, hints of white supremacy, the Iraq war and its emotional and physical effects on soldiers and their families, police brutality, Islamophobia and more. A reader is hard pressed, today, to find a book today that does not tackle a menu covering some or all of these issues. The only thing that might have been left out in this book is climate change, but since it was set in the desert of California, it might possibly have touched on that too.
It seems in order to get on a “to be read” best seller list, a book must have a progressive agenda if it is to be successful or at least the book must have been written by a woman or a woman with an immigrant background or a person of color or someone with a Muslim or Hispanic heritage. Is this the wave of the future? Many of the books seem to be variations on the same theme making it hard to find one that has been chosen because it is written well and represents good literature instead of one that is a presentation of a political agenda.
I found the book interesting, but slow, as each of the issues covered in the book needed to find its own oxygen, and at times it was tedious. The sex scenes were an unnecessary distraction, as well.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
This was an excellent book . One of my rare 5 star reviews. I do find it interesting that the comments by 2-3 star reviewers and I see their criticisms being more about the multi-narrator style than about the issues the author raises. The story surrounds the hit and run death of a 61 year old Moroccan diner owner in a desert town in the Mojave desert. We see the aftermath as the family and those involved in the accident tell the story from their different points of view. I enjoyed that Lalami touched on so many issues of the changes that are going on in our country. She deals with veterans of the Iraqi war, sibling issues, mother-daughter, father-daughter, coming back to your home town, reconnecting with children from your growing up. It adds up to a brilliant portrayal of real people who live real lives in our country. Although there were many narrators, they all were important to advancing the story. I sometimes find that one or two voices in a story with many significant characters tends to narrow the story to the viewpoint of a single or two narrators. In this book Lalami had 2 lead characters and did a good job of their character development. She gave us enough insight into the other characters based on their contribution to the story. Anytime an author creates an ambitious agenda that touches on many themes and issues, she leaves herself open to criticism. For me this book worked on all counts. I will certainly look into her other books.… (more)
LibraryThing member lbswiener
The Other Americans is the second book chosen to be read by the LA Times Book Club. The book was chosen because it was written about an immigrant family who lived in a Southern California desert city. The book has a bit of mystery and romance. It was written in a unique way from the point of view/voice of every character in the story. Unfortunately, the book dragged on too long. Therefore it only deserves 3 1/2 stars.… (more)
LibraryThing member cmt100
Lalami's earlier novel "The Moor's Account" was terrific, so I could hardly wait for this one. But it just doesn't work. If I hadn't read the earlier book, I would have had no idea I was reading a really good writer. I like a multiple-narrator device, but there were a lot of them, and the voices weren't distinguishable from each other. Every plot turn was predictable, the people were stock characters who never came alive, the references to hate crimes strangely affectless. The entire book reads as if the author is going through the motions.… (more)
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Told in short chapters from differing points of view, we learn about of Nora's father Driss, hit by a car as left his restaurant one night. Was it an accident? Nora feels the racism of the small desert town palpably, especially since 9/11. She returns home for her father's funeral and strained family relations as she pushes for the truth of her father's death. I only wish that Nora's sister Salma had figured into the story more prominently. We are teased by a few chapters in which Salma's drug dependency is mentioned, but she doesn't figure into the book's conclusion at all.… (more)
LibraryThing member pgchuis
Told from a variety of different perspectives, this tells of the death of Nora's father, an immigrant from Morocco, in a hit and run accident (or was it an accident?), the ways in which his family mourn him, and the police investigation into his death. There were elements of the story dealing with the war in Iraq, the compromises faced by undocumented migrants, and the racism experienced by (among others) Nora.

I found this a more accessible read than I had anticipated, and I enjoyed it very much, although some of the strands were left loose, which was unsatisfactory, as the author had gone to the trouble of tying off most of them.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
Although this seems like a hit-and-run novel there are complex relationships between the characters making this novel much more. The alternating points of view added interest to the perspective of each character. I would have liked to see the immigrant story go a bit farther. Excellent novel with an unexpected ending.
LibraryThing member maryreinert
This reminded me of the movie "Crash" in which various characters tell the story of what happened from their point of view. The main narrator is Nora, an immigrant from Morocco who is a striving musical composer. Her father is killed by a hit and run driver after leaving their diner restaurant. Other characters include a policeman who knew Nora in high school, her mother, the father, a sister, as well as the man who supposedly hit her father and his son. No one is perfect; no one is blameless.

Loved the short chapters and some surprises in the story. Really not as much plot driven as a spotlight on interacting characters. Reads well.
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
A hit and run death is the precipitant for this novel. Each chapter is told from the perspective of different characters affected by the accident. As the title suggests, one of the threads through out the story includes Americans whose origins outside the US are more recent. The Guerraoui family, whose father is the victim, came to this country from Morrocco as politcal refugees in the 1980's. Efrain, witness to the accident, is here with his wife and two children as undocumented from Mexico. The detective on the case is an African American woman. Jeremy, a police office, war veteran, and love interest of Nora Guerraoui, has a Polish last name and Hispanic heritage as well. The prime suspects in the case are white and find themselves sliding down the socioeconomic class ladder.

The story and writing started out really interesting, then began to drag about 2/3 of the way through. There were too many threads introduced by the author that got dropped as the story progressed. For example: Nora's character sketched out as a synthesete at the beginning of the book, then that fact was dropped. Efrain and his family also just drop out of the story....did they get a reward, what happened to them after their interaction with the authorities? The ending of the book felt like the author had also lost interest in the story.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
Told from multiple points of view, this novel revolves around Nora and her family, first and second generation immigrants living near Joshua Tree, California. After her father's death in a hit-and-run accident, Nora returns to her home town from San Francisco. Somewhat paralyzed by her grief, she grapples with the loss of her father and adjusting to her small community and family dynamics. Having just ended a relationship with a married man, she connects with a friend from high school who had always had a crush on her. The varied voices telling the story add depth and perspective as events unfold, and make for an engaging and thought-provoking novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hccpsk
Short chapters told from different characters' perspectives slowly illuminate the hit and run death of Driss Guerraoui--father, husband and diner owner in the California desert--in Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans. Driss’s daughter, Nora, returns home after her father’s death and holds the center of the narrative as she tries to learn what happened and heal relationships with her mother and sister. Sometimes the jumps in time and character feel a bit awkward, but Lalami masterfully handles many different voices to reveal the cracks in families and in society. Her use of the California desert to create the atmosphere is also worth noting. As a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Lalami is clearly being recognized by critics, but still lacks the popularity she deserves. Readers of Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout and the like should branch out--I think they will be pleasantly surprised by The Other Americans.… (more)
LibraryThing member muddyboy
This is a very well done novel centering on a family from North Africa who come to America looking for a new life and opportunity. They buy a restaurant in a small California desert town. The story is told by numerous character's perspectives which are indicated by the chapter headings. The story's hub involves the family patriarch is struck and killed by a hit and run driver and who that driver was. Other central characters are his wife and two daughters and how they are affected. There are other minor characters but they are skillfully defined by the chapter headings. A really great book.… (more)
LibraryThing member dawnlovesbooks
Nora Guerraoui returns to her small home town in the Mojave of California when her father is killed by a hit and run driver. While she is dealing with his death she begins to look into her past and examine her own life. “I had never been enough. I had always been found wanting. “
She struggles with her grief and the loss of her father. “I wondered whether there would ever be a time when I would be at peace, when my heart would not feel as though lead had been cast inside it.”

Nora is a musician and her music has always been, “a refuge from sorrows and disappointments.”

Nora has always had a troubled relationship with her mother, Maryam. Maryam always makes Nora feel like she isn’t good enough and always tells her to get her head out of the clouds. Maryam is also dealing with loss in her own way. Maryam: “Time passed yet I still found myself reaching for two glasses when I made mint tea in the morning, or looking for my husband’s socks when I folded the laundry, or wanting to hand him to hand me a fresh towel when I stepped out of the shower. These little moments were painful, they reminded me I was no longer his wife, that I was his widow now, a state of being I was still trying to accept.”

Nora soon reunites with a friend from high school named Jeremy. Jeremy is an Iraq war veteran and while he becomes a shoulder for Nora to lean on, she also helps him deal with his suppressed memories from the war.

There are other characters in the book as well. All the characters are, “deeply divided by race, religion, and class.” They each tell their stories from their own point of view. One such character is Efrain. Efrain witnessed the accident, but fled from the scene of the crime. He felt the cost of going to the police was too high because he was scared he would be deported and separated from his family. The guilt weighs heavily on him and he is haunted by dreams of the man he saw die.

The Mojave is always present in the background of the novel, the sun and wind impossible to escape.

“The desert was home, however much I had tried to run away from it. Home was wide-open spaces, pristine light, silence that wasn’t quite silence. Home, above all, was the family who loved me. Only now, after my father’s death, did I come to understand that love was not a tame or passive creature, but a rebellious beast, messy and unpredictable, capacious and forgiving, and that it would deliver me from my grief and carry me out of the darkness.”

“Memory is an unreliable visitor.”

“The present could never be untethered from the past, you couldn’t understand one without the other.”
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LibraryThing member CarrieWuj
Like a Place for Us meets a murder mystery. Nora Guerraoui is in her late 20s when her father dies suddenly in a hit and run accident outside his restaurant. He is a Moroccan immigrant in the US for close to 30 years. Nora was born there. The family has assimilated well to the CA desert town - on the surface - her parents run the restaurant, her older sister is a dentist, Nora is a Stanford graduate and composes music. But there are prejudices that surface after 9/11 when Nora is in grade school and linger to the present. There is cultural pressure and expectation to succeed and better the American Dream started by her parents and there is the expectation to uphold Muslim tradition in behavior and morality for the daughters. Nora comes home from Oakland for the funeral and gets sucked back into family roles and drama. She was close to her father, but clashes with her mother. She also meets up with an old high school friend, Jeremy Gorecki who is now a police officer - and she needs his help and support for the case of finding the driver who killed her father. This all gets laid out straightforward enough to start and seems pretty linear, but there are a lot of digressions in the middle and the case almost becomes an afterthought until all of a sudden it gets solved. Nora seems to have a bit of a chip on her shoulder about her place in the family and in society which gets a little tiresome. Good look at the challenges of immigrants - both legal and illegal, the tensions between country of origin and an adopted homeland, some thoughtful passages on grief, and complexity of family dynamics. I felt a little like this book didn't know what it wanted to be and ends up trying to do it all. Lots of topics get touched on, but it doesn't do them justice.… (more)
LibraryThing member Katyefk
This book was the choice for Deschutes County Library's Novel Idea 2020 program. I found the story to be very current for our times with how folks are affected by all the different ways they are judged and categorized. Skin color or how folks speak are among some of the other projected conclusions, which hurt all of us and keep us from contributing our best to our society. I would highly recommend this book for book club discussions.… (more)
LibraryThing member kayanelson
The story of a woman, Nora, whose father is killed in a hit and run accident. It unwinds at a nice speed, there is romance, conflict, etc. A nice easy read.



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