The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

51janzwgtkl-_sl500_Fiction — audiobook. Read by Christine Avila, Ozzie Rodriguez, Yareli Arizmendi, Gustavo Res, Gabriel Romero, and Jesse Corti. Random House Audio, 2014. 9 hours, 12 minutes. Library copy.

After their fifteen-year-old daughter suffers a traumatic brain injury, Alma and Arturo Rivera move from their home in Mexico and immigrate to the United States. The family ends up living in a rather dilapidated apartment in Delaware; grateful for the opportunity to come to America legally — Arturo insists at more than one point that the family isn’t like those Mexicans — and get their daughter, Maribel, the special education she needs.

Maribel’s arrival in Delaware attracts the attention of two boys in the neighborhood. One is a teenage skateboarder who looks at Maribel in a way that Alma does not like; the other,  sixteen-year-old Mayor Toro, lives in the same apartment complex as the Riveras with his parents and brother after immigrating from Panama fifteen years ago. While others view Maribel as odd or different, Mayor comes to form a friendship with the young girl and is determined to offer her the opportunities her parents believe she is too fragile to experience. A determination that has a ripple effect across the lives of all those living in the Redwood apartments.

Henríquez’s novel jumps back and forth between the point of view of Alma and Mayor. Occasionally, a interview-like chapter with other residents of the Redwood apartments is interspersed, but these chapters provide context for the immigrant experience rather than drive the narrative. I am starting to grow weary with how frequently this back-and-forth narrative is appearing among the books I read, although that is a more general complaint than one directed at how Henríquez utilizes the structure in her story.

In truth, I thought it worked well with this structure; the reader is treated to why Alma reacts the way she does rather than seeing her reaction as overblown through the eyes of Mayor. (Although, I would have liked to see the world through Maribel’s eyes.) And, I can certainly understand why her novel has garnished so much praise for its depiction of Latino and Latina immigrants to the United States. The way she describes that fish out of water feeling, that reality that people loathe you for assimilating and for not assimilating is nicely written, if a bit oversimplified.

“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?” (pg. 237)

What sold me on the novel — and this is where I’m afraid I have to discuss spoilers — is her description of the grief that comes when a love one dies. I cried listening to the last two chapters of the novel because Henríquez was finally providing me with a description for what I’ve been experiencing since my mom died in January. Losing her — as one of characters explains about their own loss — hasn’t left a hole in my life because she touched too many parts to be neatly assigned one container. A hole can be filled in; a hole can be ignored because all the other parts remain unaffected. Yet, as Henríquez’s character explains, that is impossible to do because their presence is everywhere. Even when you move across the country (as I have done), there is still the desire to tell them about your day, to ask for advice, to insert them into plans and ideas until your brain reminds you of what your heart wants to forget.

“When someone dies, it doesn’t leave a hole, and that’s the agony.” (pg. 275)

If you do decide to read Henríquez’s novel, I would advise skipping the audiobook. The six narrators did an excellent job differentiating between the different characters’ parts, and I appreciate that Random House was willing to hire so many. However, in switching back and forth between the audiobook and the Kindle addition, I noticed that the narrators would constantly skip over the first word in a sentence. A question like “Why did you do that?” becomes “Did you do that?”, which clearly changes the meaning of the question.

Yet it also plays into a stereotype about the broken English spoken by Hispanic immigrates, which seems like a bizarre choice given the reader knows the characters are speaking in their native Spanish and that the novel is supposed to help readers see the humanity of these immigrants. Not the stereotypes playing out on their television screens.

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