Thursday, April 16, 2020

Book 229: The Book Of Unknown Americans

"Profesora Shields explained that in English there was no usted, no tu. There was only one word—you. It applied to all people. Everyone equal. No one higher or lower than anyone else. No one more distant or more familiar. You. They. Me. I. Us. We."

Dates read: April 27- May 1, 2018

Rating: 5/10

When something bad happens, to us or someone we love, there's a temptation to look back on it and try to figure out what we, ourselves, could have done differently. If only we hadn't done this or that, maybe the bad thing would have skipped over us. The cold reality is that luck is capricious and misfortune can strike like a tornado that destroys one house down to its foundation while sparing the one across the street any more trouble than an uprooted mailbox. Honestly, though, that's scarier than the idea that we're being punished for some previously unrecognized transgression. If it's about what you do, you can change that. If it's sheer chance, though, then you never know when disaster could strike.

Self-blame haunts Alma, one of the main characters of Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans. This debut novel chronicles the experience of a Mexican couple, Arturo and Alma Rivera, who leave their home and come to the United States to seek treatment for their daughter, Maribel. In Mexico, they were well-off: Arturo ran his own construction company and they had a comfortable home. But teenage Maribel, their only child, had an accident that left her with a closed-head injury. Told that some of the best care for Maribel would be in Delaware in the United States, Arturo gets a menial but legal job harvesting mushrooms and they leave behind everything they've ever known for a dingy apartment building and the hope of some kind of recovery for their daughter.

Maribel isn't the same mentally as she used to be, but on the outside she remains just as lovely as she ever was, attracting attention from two boys: Garrett Miller, a white kid with a chip on his shoulder, and Mayor Toro, who lives in the same building as the Riveras and whose mother becomes a confidant for Alma, allowing him and Maribel to become close. Alma is tortured by her guilt over what happened to Maribel, for which she holds herself responsible, and is terrified by her unfamiliar, often hostile new world and the threats that it presents. These powerful and completely human feelings, as well as Mayor and Maribel's deepening connection, eventually spark an explosive turn of events that prove tragic for everyone.

Henriquez tells her story primarily through three voices: Alma, Arturo, and Mayor, though the first and the last are the bulk of it. She also peppers in brief chapters from the perspective of the other residents of the apartment building, all immigrants and mostly if not entirely from Latin America, telling their own stories of how they came to be there. I found these interludes a real strength of the book, paying tribute to the many paths that lead people far away from home in a novel to which the experience of immigration is so central. But going back to our core storytellers, one of the biggest issues I had with the book is that Maribel herself, the person around whom the action revolves, isn't one of them. And I don't know if that's due to the difficulty of trying to present a brain-damaged teenager faithfully and sensitively, but I spent much of my time reading the book wishing for her perspective.

Doing so might have alleviated something that I could not stop from being bothered by: the way the relationship between Mayor and Maribel is presented as largely positive. I could never let myself get invested in it the way I felt like the book wanted me to be because I could never forget that although they were the same age, Maribel had a traumatic brain injury. Although it was obvious Maribel liked him and felt comfortable with him, not dealing with the issue of the differential between them based on this fact made the romance between them uncomfortable. Combined with what I thought was mostly unimpressive prose quality, I found this book disappointing. There was so much hype around it and besides an emotional sucker-punch of an ending, I found it to mostly fall flat.

One year ago, I was reading: The Fever

Two years ago, I was reading: Sex at Dawn

Three years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Four years ago, I was reading: The Hangman's Daughter

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