Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review of The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

This book received quite a bit of buzz last summer. It is the story/ies of an assortment of Latino immigrants who live in the same apartment complex in Delaware. Through different narrative voices, the reader learns the backstory of each character – what drove him or her to come to the United States and what he/she has faced as a new (or aspiring) citizen.

At the center of The Book of Unknown Americans lies a relationship between two teenagers – Mayor, whose family comes from Panama, and Maribel, whose family is newly arrived from Mexico. The road to each other is symbolic of the larger coming together (and disconnections) of cultures, families, expectations, and experiences. I think the book is at its best when it focuses on these two characters and their family members.  And though this is a novel for adults, I also think that it is reminiscent of some of the better YA that I have read – in that it has a very accessible style but also tackles important ideas and topics related to identity.

The “unknown” component of the title presumably relates to the fact that the characters’ stories are not typical headline-generating stories about immigration. The characters are regular people – regular Americans – working and shopping and going to church and going to school. And the setting – an unassuming Delaware town – is also not a border town with a fence and armed gunmen. It is a regular place, where regular things happen. These stories might be unknown to the average reader.

This is one of those novels that seems to be written to serve a Larger Purpose. In this case, the purpose might be to shed light on the diversity within the category of people we call “Latino” and to broaden the tapestry of stories about immigration to incorporate this diversity. To that end, there’s a Tumblr designed to capture more of these "real" stories .

I will say that while I did enjoy this book, I wonder what it would have been like if the characters had been able to breathe a bit without the cloak of the agenda. The short chapters that focus on the neighbors in the building certainly achieve the goal of putting more stories on the table, but perhaps at the expense of fully fleshing out the central storylines. As a reader, I would love to go to school with Maribel (she attends a school for special needs students). I would love to go to work with Maribel’s father, Arturo (a laborer in Pennsylvania). I would love to be a part of the disappointing job interviews and the violent confrontations. All of these events happen off-page and leave me wanting more.

If you want to learn about this author (a fellow Northwestern University grad. Woo!), you can read interviews here and here.

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