Laila Lalami’s splendid new novel “The Other Americans” begins with a death, a quick and mysterious one. Mohammed Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant and restaurant owner who’s lived for several decades with his family in a small Mojave Desert town, stays late at work one night and is killed by a hit-and-run driver after locking up. Was it a mistake, caused by a poorly lit road and inattention? Or was something uglier at play — something that the Guerraoui family, whose first American business was destroyed by arson after 9/11, knows all too well?
The question is answered, eventually, but not before Lalami makes us at home in the minds of a multitude of narrators, each of whom is dealing, in different ways, with being a stranger in a strange land. Nora, Driss’ daughter, is a jazz composer who long ago left that desert town; she moves back, letting her life slowly twist in the wind as she ponders what might have happened to her father. “Growing up in this town,” she muses, “I had long ago learned that the savagery of a man named Mohammed was rarely questioned, but his humanity always had to be proven.”
Maryam, her mother, gazes back through the fog of her grief; remembering the strangeness of her arrival long ago from Casablanca — “being so far away, it was like being orphaned.” Jeremy, a lonely Iraq war vet and police officer who was once a classmate of Nora’s, finds himself reconnecting with her; he’s held memories of Nora “like little treasures I’d saved up in a box.” Efrain, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who witnessed Driss’ death, is afraid to come forward, rationalizing that he needs to keep a low profile for the safety of his children (“Both citizens. I want to be clear about that.”). Coleman, a black woman detective investigating the case, is herself a transplant from D.C., worrying about her son’s adjustment even as she meticulously traces the facts of the death.
And we hear brief, searing monologues from neighbor Anderson, who refers to Driss as “the Muslim guy” and worries that his town is changing; from Nora’s older sister Salma, who’s spent a lifetime trying to make her parents proud while slowly dissolving in the process; and from Driss himself, filling in his mindset on his last days and hours.
It’s a tricky structure — the chapters are mostly short, and the voices almost overlap in our heads — but Lalami, author of “The Moor’s Account,” which was a Pulitzer finalist and also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, walks the tightrope confidently. You have the sense here of a handful of fully realized novels, all circling each other; each of these characters meriting his or her own story. The town, a place where the sun beats down “without mercy,” is full of secrets; of pasts colliding with presents. Lalami’s writing has the calmness of a desert sky, with each voice finding its own breath: Nora’s way of seeing music as color; Maryam’s wistful recollections (their family “was like a thrift-store tea set, there was always one piece missing”); the rock-hardness of Salma, summing up a lifetime of uprootedness with “This is where the plane took you.”
At once mystery novel, character study and poignant reflection on the immigrant experience, “The Other Americans” is the kind of book you read breathlessly, savoring each character’s turn in the spotlight even as you miss the others. Together their voices create a vivid portrait of a time and place in America; a town of simmering resentments, wary tension, unexpected connections and uncanny beauty. “How hard the believers make it to get into heaven,” Driss ponders, looking at the valley landscape in the slow-rising morning sun, “when they have all this right here.”
“The Other Americans” by Laila Lalami, Pantheon, 320 pp., $25.95
Laila Lalami will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free; 206-386-4636, spl.org