Moroccan novelist Laila Lalami tackles the big stuff with her novels and characters—justice, race, class, familial identity, and religious sectarianism, among other weighty matters. Don’t even get her started on historical erasure. In her most impressive take on the topic, 2014’s The Moor’s Account (which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Man Booker Prize nominee) she narrated the story of Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, a Moroccan slave who traveled with Cabeza de Vaca and is considered the first black explorer of the New World, but who was reduced to a footnote in de Vaca’s writings. Lalami created a narrative and an interior life for al-Zamori in that book, animating him into what can only be his rightful place in history.
Nearly five years later, Lalami follows up that novel with The Other Americans, a book that is rightfully commanding a great deal of review attention right now, and which is a tale so radically different from The Moor’s Account that it seems like Lalami was a different person entirely when she wrote it. It is a “big novel,” and a perfectly timed one, though it seems at the start to be reaching for a relatively humble plotline for Lalami: death.
The Other Americans tells the story of the death by hit-and-run driver of Driss, a Moroccan immigrant living in the Mojave Desert. Driss’ daughter, a gifted if uncategorizable composer named Nora, returns to her childhood home to bury her father, and soon becomes consumed by her attempt to find out who killed him. Her quest for justice is a lonely one—her mother and her sister seem uninterested in digging for the truth alongside her. Until the novel gets going, it seems that Nora’s personal family tragedy is the only story that’s being told.
This couldn’t be less true, as it turns out, and Nora’s perspective on the story is soon joined by the perspectives of an unbelievable eight other voices—each of them distinct characters in alternating chapters, and all with a unique connection to Driss’ death. They range from members of Nora’s immediate family to a potential witness to the hit and run to the detective investigating the case. So many characters in one book! And if that’s not enough, the murder victim himself gets to narrate some of the chapters, and he reveals details about his life that both increase the reader’s empathy for him and potentially complicate that empathy.
That’s one of the most interesting things about The Other Americans. None of the characters (save perhaps one) can be thought of either as entirely sympathetic or entirely bad, so if you’re tempted to read it as a morality play, you’ll be frustrated. I wondered if this was in some way a reaction to the criticism Lalami received in certain reviews of The Moor’s Account—that the white characters were all bad and the non-white ones, all virtuous. In this one, everyone’s a bit of a jerk, which seems fair for our times.
Lalami also plays with the reader’s own unconscious expectations—or, at least she did with my own. I found myself impatient with the fact that the Muslim characters weren’t particularly religious—the novel is almost over before Noora’s mother unrolls her first prayer mat, for example. But then, moments later, the novel dramatically reveals plot points that had been chugging along discreetly, and you realize that the characters’ Muslim identities have been shaping the whole story the whole time. And so, too, has race, of course. Even Noora’s family’s reticence to help her solve the mystery of her father’s death is like an allusion to the reality that, in the real world, the deaths of immigrants and minorities are almost always given short shrift in terms of media and police attention. Race rears its head in other ways, too—sometimes subtly, sometimes not. In the latter category, the book Noora leaves on her lover’s bedside table is The Fire Next Time. (!) (Speaking of that lover, by the way, Lalami’s writing exploring the sexual tension between Noora and Jeremy, a boy she knew in high school who has grown into a police officer and a vet, is kind of hot.)
If I have any criticism of The Other Americans, it’s that the incandescent prose of The Moor’s Account makes the prose in this one pale in comparison. This novel is written in a more realistic, workmanlike style—but this ultimately makes sense, given that The Moor’s Account was a fable whose writing was fable-like, and fable-good—and this one seems more like it was meant to force the reader to come back down to earth and look at the facts. (Noora’s sister Salma’s lone chapter in The Other Americans, however, is also fable-good—a second-person fantasia that appears like an oasis of such vivid writerly technique that you almost forget that Salma is a low-key villain in this book. Again, Lalami will confound your assumptions as a reader!) Also, I guessed the identity of the hit-and-run driver about three-quarters of the way through the book.
Lalami also writes non-fiction, and I like to read her novels while keeping her essays and book reviews in the back of my mind, like a kind of context key. If you want to read a statement of artistic integrity vs. racist ideology so startlingly clear-eyed it may make you cry out, for example, read Lalami’s essay on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in The Nation. I’ve followed her career for years, and am a bit of a Lalami completist, if not always a total devotee. If you’ve never read her work, The Other Americans is a good place to start. She’s a cultural critic of the very best kind—an entertaining one—which often comes in handy, because if there’s any culture that needs an entertaining critique, it’s this one.
The Other Americans
by Laila Lalami
Pantheon; 320 p.
Gee Henry is a freelance writer currently living in Nashville. Find him on Twitter at @geehenry.