The Other Americans begins with blood. In the first pages of the Pulitzer finalist Laila Lalami’s new novel, a Moroccan immigrant named Driss Guerraoui is struck by a vehicle one evening while leaving the diner he owns, near California’s Mojave Desert. The car speeds off, its driver either unconcerned—or, worse yet, satisfied.
Through the perspectives of nine alternating narrators, including Driss himself, Lalami threads together an account of the slain man’s journey to America and the life he toiled to build after his arrival. The first character introduced is Nora, Driss’s American-born daughter, who moves back to her hometown after her father’s suspicious death. Her thoughts are crisply relayed, her grief overwhelming in its clarity: “My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland,” the novel opens. “Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo.”
After Nora’s initial recounting of the news, Lalami introduces her other narrators—among them, Jeremy, an old school friend of Nora’s, who is white; Efrain, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who witnessed the hit and run; Maryam, Driss’s wife; and Coleman, the black woman detective working Driss’s case.
The Other Americans is, on its face, a novel that traces the story of one immigrant family and the seemingly inexplicable tragedy that ruptures it. But through her many characters’ specific and overlapping perspectives, Lalami also questions the feasibility of any centralized American identity. None of the novel’s narrators, even those who are citizens, ever quite measures up to the expectations they feel their immediate community, or their country, has of them. They are too loud or too brown or too soft. Too different. Nobody is ever enough.
Thankfully, the distinctions between their reasons for feeling like outsiders are still important: Lalami doesn’t conflate Jeremy’s unease in some hypermasculine spaces, for example, with Efrain’s all-consuming fear of deportation. For readers with their own experiences of immigration, whether direct—such as Driss, Maryam, and Efrain—or via family, like Nora, perhaps some of Lalami’s core considerations will be familiar. As Nora and the other characters unravel the real story of Driss’s killing, Lalami weighs heavy questions: Will America ever live up to the dream it sells would-be immigrants around the world? Is it possible to belong in a country that so readily kills people like you? Who is sufficiently American?