Author: Cristina Henríquez
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 central 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.