Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans


The Other Americans by Laila Lalami consists of about 65 short chapters each named after a character, each of whom speaks in first person. Chapter headings repeat, which is a clever way to gauge the importance of each character in the structure of the story. Nora, an aspiring classical composer based in Oakland but visiting her family in Yucca Valley, that’s near the Joshua Tree National Park, is the main character with the most chapters named after her, including the first and last.

I thought this wouldn’t work. In lesser hands, multiple POV’s might end up as an awkward mash up of arbitrary distinctions. And I was worried that the many characters in the interweave of the plot would all end of sounding the same. But that didn’t happen. Lalami grounds each character in the situation of their own life with an impressive specificity. Even the most loathsome character, A.J., who is a racist bully, comes across as appealing when he talks about himself or is talked about by his parents. We get a very different perspective on him when he is talked about by Nora or her sometime local boyfriend, Jeremy, who’s a cop.

If you suspected that with multiple POV’s we’d get Rashomon-like multiple perspectives on the same events, there are some minor key aspects of the narrative like that. But Laila Lalami does something more interesting with her story engine. She plays a literary game of relay racing. One character opens a plot line and passes it on to the character who talks in the next chapter, like the passing of a story baton. In some chapters, a character does a flashback and fills you in on the background of the story. There wasn’t a single chapter of this novel that bored me. It was one riveting, knockout section after another.

Why are these Americans “other”? Nora is an “other” even within her own family circle. She’s an aspiring classical composer, a seeker after grants and awards, while her parents are back in their small town running a successful diner. Her parents are Muslims who had fled Casablanca during student unrest. Her father was a philosophy student in Morocco, but pressed by his more practical wife, immigrated to the U.S. to avoid arrest by the political authorities. He gave up dreams of an intellectual life to run a donut shop, and finally, to make good with a diner.

The refrain of Nora’s mother is that her youngest daughter has “her head in the clouds”. Nora’s older sister is married with children and has a thriving dental practice with her husband. Now that’s “practical”. Nora’s father is more sympathetic to his daughter’s life in the art music scene. The plot trigger occurs early: a hit-and-run where Nora’s father is killed late one night after closing his restaurant.

There’s a mild genre flavor of who-did-it?”. We may have learned the answer to that question halfway through the book. What wonderful literary architecture! It’s hard to praise it enough. But the question of motive remains: Was it a hate crime? Was Nora’s father run down deliberately? Nora has had ample experience being an “other” American while growing up-being treated as weird in school because her name and culture were “different”, i.e. non-Anglo. But being “different” in The Other Americans creates the energy that drives the cultural ethos of the book.

The ending was too bowtie for my taste, and I think that’s a defect. You could see the who-done-it aspect of the book coming a mile off, but this isn’t genre fiction so maybe that doesn’t matter. Wonderful book. So happy to have read it.