The Book of Unknown Americans: A novel - Cristina Henrxedquez

It’s risky, fragmenting narration into a large number of voices, but it’s the perfect format for a novel about the experiences of newcomers to the United States, who can have an astonishing variety of experiences.


Readers might expect to face a disadvantage, being unable to attach to a particular character, but Cristina Henriquez balances the introduction of an expanse of characters, some of whom only present a single segment in the novel, with a core set which makes regular reappearances. The connection is slow to build, but particular narrative threads take root in readers and engage them more determinedly.


With a myriad of voices, the emphasis is on the specific experiences each person has. And, yet, there are moments in which broader statements are made as particular voices step out from the crowd.


“Sr. Rivera said, ‘But here? It’s safe, no?’
‘It’s not as safe as it used to be,’ my dad said.
‘But it’s safe,’ Sr. Rivera pressed, like he wanted to be reassured.
‘Yes,’ my dad said. ‘Compared to where any of us are from, it’s safe.’”


The belief that something else will be better has played a role in every character’s experience. This is particularly prominent in the scenes in this novel which focus on family life, fathers and mothers negotiating the stuff of everyday, from school registration to procuring and preparing food in a foreign culture. But even amidst such a variety of voices, from landlords to mushroom farmers, there are some similarities.


“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.”


The core group of characters seems to focus on the experience of two teenagers, whose parents have come to the United States believing that it will provide greater safety for their families than their homelands offered.


Partly because the families are at different stages in the process of acclimatization and partly because the author strives to make characters’ voices distinct, the members of these two families have different perspectives on their lives, not only in terms of current living conditions but also regarding the possibility of a romantic relationship between the young people.


Beyond the everyday tensions surrounding their adjustment to new surroundings, these tensions are at the heart of the novel. The Book of Everyday Americans appears somewhat distanced, almost journalistic in its style initially, but as the colours in the kaleidoscopic view intensify, the events in the novel will carry a greater heft than readers will expect.

This originally appeared here, on BuriedInPrint.