July 2019

Noted

‘The Other Americans’ by Laila Lalami

By Helen Elliott
An accidental death in a tale of immigrant generations highlights fractures in the promise of America

A man closes his diner one spring night in a small Californian town and walks across the road to his car. Another man looks up from adjusting his bicycle chain when he hears a speeding car. He sees a body falling from the bonnet as if it were nothing more than “a can or a plastic bottle”. The car doesn’t stop. The man with the bicycle wants to help but he is Mexican and in America without papers. When he sees a jogger – blonde ponytail, running shorts, earplugs – coming towards the accident scene he fades into the shadows. This vision of middle America can take care of it all.

The victim of this casual crime, which flares into countless other lives, is Driss. Fleeing the dangers of Casablanca in the 1980s, Driss is grateful to America for his life of steadiness and prosperity. Now, at 64, he also has a secret that makes him happier than he has been for years. On the night he dies he plans to discuss this secret with his wife, Maryam. America has not suited her. Life hasn’t delivered what it promised when she was a self-assured young wife in Morocco. Driss and Maryam have two daughters: Nora, a jazz composer living in San Francisco, and Salma, a dentist who has remained in the town and appears to be living the American dream.

Laila Lalami, a Moroccan American, is a professor of creative writing at the University of California and a familiar essayist and cultural critic. Her vivid historical novel The Moor’s Account won the American Book Award and The Other Americans will consolidate her reputation.

Lalami’s first language is French and this gives her English its elusive tang. Her words, in a precise, orderly revelation, could be the voiceover for a documentary. Emotion is a contained background hum in this small-town crime story, as the characters step forward, chapter by chapter, to explain themselves. As they do, knowledge shifts, facts clatter into place. Lalami’s focus is the America that is emerging from the first two decades of this century, and what could be more intimate than translating into some truth the infinite tissue of lies that we tell ourselves and others. The traditional notion of America no longer holds because the centre no longer holds. America is a collection of increasingly nervous tribes and within the tribes are individuals who have the sense that their life has as much value as their neighbour’s, but in many cases more. How does that understanding sit within the old-fashioned sense of community?

Small-town life has always been the place to begin any disclosure about society, and Lalami’s novel is a calm and impressive fit for this great tradition.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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