On the surface, The Other Americans and The Boat People have a lot in common. Both explore a range of point-of-view characters with a range of views on immigration into North America, whether that’s because they’re a second- or third-generation immigrant themselves, have just come to the US or Canada, are African-American, or are fundamentally racist. Both take a single, exemplary case – a hit-and-run killing of an elderly Moroccan man in The Other Americans, a Tamil father and son fleeing the Sri Lankan civil war in The Boat People – and use it to illustrate the wider plight of refugees and minorities. Both are written by middle-aged female authors from immigrant backgrounds – Lalami was born in Morocco and moved to the US for university, whereas Bala, whose family are Sri Lankan, was born in Dubai and emigrated to Canada as a child. Nevertheless, one, in my opinion, is a resounding success, whereas the other falls far short of its ambitions.
Lalami sets herself a formidable challenge in The Other Americans. The novel is narrated by no fewer than nine first-person point-of-view characters (with one random jump into second person): Driss, the hit-and-run victim and his wife, Maryam; their two adult daughters, Nora and Salma; Nora’s old school friend, Jeremy, back from fighting in Afghanistan; Efrain, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed Driss’s death and is afraid to come forward; Anderson, the driver of the car, and his son, A.J.; and Coleman, an African-American female police officer investigating the incident. These narrators don’t even exhaust the number of significant characters in the novel, as other figures, such as Fierro, Jeremy’s ex-army comrade, also play substantial secondary roles. With so many narrators, it would be nearly impossible to give them all individual registers, but Lalami doesn’t even seem to try; the mass of voices is a device to give us all the different sides of the story, rather than an experiment in ventriloquism. It’s especially frustrating when certain narrators, such as Salma and Anderson, pop up just to resolve unanswered questions or throw in red herrings. Through Salma’s chapters, for example, we learn that she’s addicted to prescription medication, which helps us to read some of the tensions in certain conversations she has with Nora; but was this a fact that really needed to be conveyed to us?
Like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You – although with less elegant prose – The Other Americans is a novel that’s so afraid that its readers might miss something that it insists on spelling everything out. The numerous narrators ensure that we aren’t left wondering about any aspect of Driss’s life or death, which rather robs the book of its power. Nora’s decision to investigate what really happened, after her father’s death is initially ruled accidental, gives the plot some sense of direction, but this thread pops up well into the book and is resolved before the end. Lalami also explores the micro-aggressions that Driss and his family have suffered since their arrival in the States, but these, too, are dropped in so pointedly that they feel schematic, rather than integral to the characters’ understanding of themselves. This is another problem created by the large cast – Salma’s recognition that her lighter skin has made her path much easier than that of her darker-skinned sister’s could have been subtle and interesting, but it’s simply said and then forgotten about, as the book doesn’t have enough time to explore the relationship between the sisters in depth. Axing much of the secondary cast to focus more closely on the Moroccan family at the heart of this novel would have allowed Lalami to achieve the emotional impact she seeks.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th March 2019.
Sharon Bala’s debut novel, The Boat People, also flips between perspectives: Mahindan, a single refugee father seeking asylum in Canada; Priya, a second-generation Sri Lankan who is part of his legal team; and Grace, an inexperienced Japanese-Canadian adjudicator who’s tempted to take a hard line against a group of people who she sees as terrorists. However, by utilising only three voices, and telling their stories in the third person, her novel feels much richer and, ironically, more polyphonic than Lalami’s. The Boat People features a wonderful secondary cast who are all the stronger for not having their every thought revealed, from Mitchell, a long-time adjudicator who warns Grace about the political motivations behind her appointment, to Priya’s father and uncle, also survivors of conflict in Sri Lanka, to Mahindan’s late wife, Chithra.
Bala handles the legal complexities of claiming asylum in Canada with a light but informed touch, and her three protagonists are all divided interestingly within themselves. Mahindan agonises over his memories of the past eight years in Sri Lanka, remembering how, as a mechanic, he was forced to fix vehicles for the Tigers, and slowly revealing that he may have become even more morally compromised. Priya is reluctantly co-opted onto an internship in refugee law when she wants to work on corporate cases, and suspects it’s because of her boss’s mistaken belief that she speaks Tamil – but her involvement in the hearings starts to break long-established patterns of silence in her own family. Grace is hard to like, with her stubborn insistence that she’s equipped to do the job she’s doing despite being obviously out of her depth (there are shades of The Secret Barrister’s critique of the British legal system here) and her willingness to swallow cliches about dangerous, criminal immigrants. However, Bala does an admirable job of showing how this prejudice manages to take root in Grace, despite her own family’s experience of migration. My only complaint about The Boat People is that it ended too soon; I could happily have read three hundred more pages about this nuanced and diverse community of characters.
Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy of The Boat People to me!