21st May, 2019

Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (Canongate Books)

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling in a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in a somewhat derelict area in Delaware, they discover that Maribel's recovery - the piece of the American Dream on which they've pinned all their hopes - will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with racial and cultural obstacles as well as language problems.

Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamá fifteen years ago lives in the same apartment block. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she's sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America.

The Book of Unknown Americans mostly follows the lives of two families but the narrative is interspersed with testimonials from the other immigrant residents of the Riveras' and Toro's block of flats, all of whom have come to the US to seek a better way of life. Even though they may not always have gained or achieved what they originally were looking for, most of the people in this novel seem happy to be in "the land of freedom".

And this is exactly what struck me as odd! In a story that deals with the marginalised, the poor, the suppressed I found it a bit surprising that nobody is bitter or disillusioned. Yes, the characters all seem to realise at some point that if they had stayed home they probably would have been worse off, but the whole "oh well, now we're here and we'll take what life gives us" attitude seemed a bit unbelievable to me.

The book brims with a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters: a line cook, a photographer, a small business owner, an army vet, parents seeking better lives for themselves but particularly their children. The development in the younger residents is lovely and touching. Over the course of the story even handicapped Maribel gets better in both her school work and her outlook on life. Alma aquires a rudimentary grasp of the English language with the help of Celia Rivera .

It is clear that Henriquez here draws the US as still being a country of opportunity for legal immigrants. What I would have liked, however, would have been a bit more critical complexity (see my comment above). Still, The Book of Unknown Americans is a moving but unsentimental story of young love, full of unflagging honesty and undaunted humanity.

Rating: 3/5 stars

© Copyright The Constant Reader

All texts and photographs are mine, unless indicated otherwise.