The Other Americans by Laila Lalami review – the political is personal

The death of a Moroccan immigrant in a small California town exposes secrets, lies and a legacy of violence

With the notable exception of the Japanese Americans interned in camps after Pearl Harbor, US civilians were remarkably well insulated from the shock of 20th-century war. In the 21st century the nature of war changed. Since 9/11, American security forces have been occupied with preventing foreign operatives from bringing conflicts to US cities. Migration has changed the population of many of the world’s nations. Citizens of America may share a language, a faith and a heritage with the enemy overseas. Nowadays wars do not stay in their place; rather, the ricochet of bullets fired in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan echoes through the streets of small-town America. This is the starting point of Laila Lalami’s new novel.

Her previous novel, The Moor’s Account, was nominated for both a Pulitzer prize and the Man Booker. It tells the story of the Castilian Pánfilo de Narváez, who sailed to the Americas in 1527; his voyage and its brutal aftermath are seen from the perspective of Estebanico, a Moroccan slave. Where The Moor’s Account is stately in tone and sweeping in scope, focusing on conquest and survival, The Other Americans is set entirely in one small California town and its environs and is concerned with the intimacies of relationships between neighbours, former classmates and family members. What both books share, however, is a concern with the effects of violence on the human psyche.

The story begins with a late-night hit-and-run on an empty street. The victim is Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant and restaurant owner. There are no witnesses, or so it at first appears. In fact, there is one: Efraín Aceves, whose undocumented status and consequent fear of deportation stop him coming forward and make him resist the urgings of his wife to do the right thing. The novel is told from multiple viewpoints: Nora, Driss’s composer daughter; Jeremy Gorecki, an Iraq veteran and Nora’s former classmate; Erica Coleman, the newly arrived police detective investigating the killing; Anderson Baker, a bowling alley proprietor who owns the property adjacent to the family’s diner; the widowed Maryam Guerraoui; and even the deceased Driss himself. The multiple voices are handled with restrained mastery by Lalami, who eschews drama to focus on nuance and detail, offering an ever-shifting perspective on events.

The many strands of the novel are held together by the unfolding murder investigation. Could what looks like an accident possibly be a hate crime? There are sufficient tensions to offer possibilities but nothing that quite looks like a motive. Lalami brilliantly underplays the rising pressure in this simmering desert town as Nora’s questioning reveals a history of resentment between her father and his neighbour, who had wanted to buy the Guerraoui property, as well as secrets her father hid from his own family. Nora’s increasing frustration with the pace of the police inquiry is set against the methodical and unhurried approach of Detective Coleman, an African American woman. In the hands of another writer, these details would be foregrounded, but Lalami resists the obvious. Coleman is worried about her son’s ability to make friends in their new home. Ethnicity, gender – these things don’t matter until they matter. New grievances have a way of following old fault lines.

There lies at the heart of The Other Americans a cautionary tale for those who claim politics has no place in their lives, and that includes a great many Americans. Acts of brutality, even those distant in time and geography, cast a shadow over relationships between the town’s inhabitants. Nora’s growing intimacy with Iraq vet Jeremy is clouded by his memories of wartime atrocities and the presence, by turns disturbing and needy, of his Marine buddy Fierro. The threat of political violence that drove Nora’s parents to leave Morocco is given expression in Maryam’s quiet melancholy, her regret at losing her homeland, and in her elder daughter’s duty-bound frustration. Turning the “other” into scapegoats for personal failure gives rise in turn to new acts of violence. “The present could never be untethered from the past, you couldn’t understand one without the other,” observes Coleman as she comes to comprehend the interplay between the town’s residents. 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.

• The Other Americans is published by Bloomsbury Circus (£16.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

Aminatta Forna

The GuardianTramp

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