Sometimes there’s nothing like a good mystery, and I have been hearing good things about The Other Americans all year. I expected a basic family drama and got murder instead. Not too campy, not too winky noir classicky, and even, for a book that discusses politics as much as this one does, not too pedantic. The Other Americans presents a young woman grieving her murdered father, and discovering how little she really knows about her sleepy hometown as she tries to find his killer.
Working musician Nora Guerraoui gets a call from her mother one night that her father, Driss, has been killed in a hit-and-run accident. The news, understandably, turns Nora’s life upside down as she moves home to the Mojave Desert from Oakland to help her Morrocan family take care of the fallout from the murder. Meanwhile, Jeremy, Nora’s high school classmate, works as a deputy with the sheriff’s department and stops by the family home to pay his respects. Meeting up with Nora again sparks a romance between the two, even though life has completely changed them both after high school. Jeremy has served with the US Marines in the Iraq War after escaping childhood obesity, hereditary alcoholism, and dealing with ongoing PTSD. In the years since 9/11, Nora has endured anti-Muslim sentiment even while she struggles against her strict mother’s favortism towards her older sister, a romantic history full of infidelities, and her own sense of insecurity.
The narration switches from character to character with each chapter, as the story comes to involve detectives and eventually neighboring business owners. No one ever gives the entire story, nor they appear completely unbiased in their own opinions about each other. Nora’s mother can only see perfection from Nora’s sister, without being aware of increasing debt and pill addiction. Nora is shocked to hear that Driss planned to leave her mother, and can barely reconcile it with the father she loved. However, the road that leads to A.J.’s conviction is anything but predictable, and such a large portrait of a community creates delight red herrings. However, sometimes the trails that lead to nothing cause disappointment. Nora’s synaesthesia plays a prominent role in flashbacks of her development as a young child, but remains strangely absent from her thoughts as an adult. Jeremy’s war buddy, Fierro, looms in the landscape of Jeremy’s social life for so long that his ultimate exit from the story feels unearned. However, the rich characters drawn in this book carry it through it a wonderful and surprisingly happy conclusion.
The Other Americans was a National Book Award finalist and it lives up to that hype. It ranks easily among the best books I’ve read all year. An excellent mystery that finishes strong, it sits pretty high on my list of gifts for readers this year.
Four out of five stars.
Favorite quote: “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 grief and carry me out of the darkness.”