An Apartment Block of American Lives

The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel, by Cristina Henríquez (Knopf)

The year is half over and already I’ve read so many exceptional books that I might wonder if I’ve lost all discernment. Might wonder—because the good reads stick with one, and Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans is definitely one of the good ones and will definitely be sticking with me.

Set in an apartment building in Delaware that houses immigrants from several Latin American nations, The Book of Unknown Americans offers a chorus of voices. The building’s residents include several single men (among them a photographer and the building owner); a woman who directs the local experimental theater, which is perpetually under-funded; a Vietnam veteran and his wife; the Toro family, originally from Panama, with one son in college on a soccer scholarship and another, less confident, less athletic son still in high school; and the most recent arrivals, the Rivera family, parents and their only daughter, who is recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

One of the delights of this book is that while narrated primarily by Alma (mother of the Rivera family) and Mayor (the younger son of the Toro family), nine other narrators are given the opportunity to tell their own stories. Each of these eleven voices is distinct and articulate, giving the book an impressive scope although it’s just 304 pages in length.

The central narrative of the story is a frustrated romance between Mayor and the Rivera daughter, Maribel. Due to her brain injury Maribel has difficulties with short-term memory, focus, and speech, so Mayor’s original attraction to her is based on her appearance. But Mayor soon realizes that Maribel is more complex and, at times, more perceptive than her family gives her credit for. Watching the gradual changes in Maribel and in their relationship is one of the real pleasures of this book.

Other arcs are simpler: fear of losing a job in the recession that began under Bush and continues under Obama, job searches, conflicts about whether or not wives should work outside the home, the difficulty of communicating with relatives left behind, fear of violence, and changing loyalties among the building’s residents.

This book is both devastating and hopeful. The worst possible happens—but, at the same time, the characters find small ways to continue their lives relying on memory and one another.

Too often the immigrant in the U.S. is presented one-dimensionally, generally with a stereotype of an illegal, often criminal immigrant from Mexico. Some of the building’s residents have immigrated illegally—but others have not, going through protracted application processes. Yes, there are characters originating from Mexico, but the building houses residents originally from Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela as well, and all of these characters, to a greater or lesser extent, depending upon the time they’ve spent in the U.S. identify as Americans, see this country as home, as a land they can benefit from and contribute to.

This book is an essential read, both for its narrative and for the portrait it offers of a community too often neglected in current fiction. Read it to be moved. Read it, as well, to come to know this country better.

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