Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Author: Cristina Henríquez

Published: 6/3/2014

Rating: 4.5 STARS

Fiction | 286 pages | Published by Knopf

Mini Review: A remarkable story that swept me off my feet. A story rooted in authenticity that is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful.

At the heart of The Book of Unknown Americans are the Riveras, who managed to secure work Visas after their 15-year-old daughter, Maribel, suffered a traumatic brain injury in Mexico. With legal authorization to work in the U.S., Arturo and Alma Rivera move to Delaware to be near a special-needs school that they hope will help restore their daughter to the lively teenager she once was. In that small, cold, and bleak city in Delaware, the Riveras hope to start a new life. Their new apartment may be small and rundown, and Arturo may only work in a damp and dark warehouse picking mushrooms for a living, but at least Maribel will have a better life in America. Or so they think.

The narrative is divided into several different point of view chapters. Alma is clearly the The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquezcentral character, but a Panamanian teenager, Mayor, also narrates a large part of the story. Upon seeing Maribel for the first time, Mayor is initially struck by her beauty and becomes enchanted with this young mysterious and stoic girl.  However, the love that will eventually develop between them will be complicated by the reality of Maribel’s condition. In fact, much of the drama will revolve around the complications their relationship will create. 

Interspersed throughout the novel are short chapters that allow the various characters we meet throughout the story to come to life in their own words and lend their voice to the narrative of the immigrant experience.These short chapters are what give the book its name and they provide a rebuttal to anti-immigrant rhetoric that is only intensifying in American. All the narrators are neighbors of the Riveras who live in the same apartment complex and they hail from all over Latin America. Below is a snippet narrated by one such neighbor, Micho Alvarez.

We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?

However, despite how much I enjoyed these chapters, I must admit that some of them felt unnecessary. They were moving and beautifully written as well as entertaining, but they did no progress the plot and often appeared to be sanitized accounts with the aim of providing a palatable story of the “model immigrant.” These characters could have been humanized to better effect by serving more important roles in the actual plot of the novel instead of serving as the content filler it seemed to be at times. 

In the end, The Book of Unknown Americans receives my strong recommendation. I devoured the story in 3 sittings, which was incredibly fast for a slow reader like myself. I admit that much of my enjoyment came from the familiar subject matter and my ability to closely relate to the immigrant narrative. But that only speaks to the authenticity with which the story was written. 

6 thoughts on “Review: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

  1. This sounds excellent, definitely goes on my tbr! I’m definitely curious about the different points of view, have to say I really like the sounds of these characters being given a voice.
    You’ve probably already read this but on the off-chance, let me recommend Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias. It’s US immigration policy taken to its logical conclusion.

    1. No, I actually haven’t read it. And that’s a wonderful thing because there will always be a new book for me to explore!

      I just read the synopsis of the novel, and it sounds fascinating. For some reason I thought your recommendation may have been nonfiction, but I was happy to learn it was a novel. If a novel is able to make honest points about the future while telling an engaging story at the same time, then I’m sold!

      1. Yay then I’m glad I mentioned it! It’s a dystopia with different povs and I thought it was great. I hope it’ll convince you then 🙂 I found the future imagined all too realistic.

  2. I’ve had my eye on this one since it came out – hopefully I’ll get the chance to read it soon!
    The immigrant theme reminds me of a couple of books you might like by Kim Thuy. Her first is called Ru, and Man is her second. They’re both short and poetic – very beautiful writing.

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