Not a day goes by without a mention of Brexit or Trump’s wall, the words refugee, immigrant and migrants and their manifold connotations. The world can be an ugly place at times and one of literature’s roles is to show us this ugliness. Cristina Henriquez discusses exactly this in her novel, The Book of Unknown Americans; she shows the reader people at their best and their worst and she does so with such compassion that the reader can find inexplicable beauty even in the most heart-breaking places of the narrative making The Book of Unknown Americans incredibly relevant to our present days.
The story is told through the viewpoint of a number of characters but the focus is on the Rivera family, Alma, Arturo and Maribel. The book opens with them just arriving in the United States from Mexico. They are legal migrants having all the required paperwork and they are in search of a better life and help for their daughter, Maribel, who needs to study in a special school after an accident has left her with a brain damage. The accident has left scars not just on Maribel but on the whole family and their dynamic. In an attempt to better their situation they seek hope in the United States believing that the future holds better fortune for them. On arrival, they realise that nothing is as they expected it to be but that is not always such a bad thing. Arturo’s job is dissatisfying and although Alma finds friendship in her neighbours she misses her home. However, with time and the company of Mayor, their teenage neighbour, Maribel slowly begins to improve. A lot of small everyday events take place throughout the story thus exposing the reader to all aspects of humanity showing us that words like immigrants and migrants lose much meaning when we get to know the people behind as is the case with the Rivera family. A turn of events leads to the climax of the story that is bound to tug at the heartstrings of the reader and the ending is bitter-sweet but also very realistic.
The Book of Unknown Americans is not written in a high-brow, literary fashion and the style of writing doesn’t really stand out, which can be seen as a critique of the text but at the same time it does not devalue its story. In a way the book follows a somewhat stereotypical and predictable path but this doesn’t really matter when the reader is invested in the characters and their fates and Henriquez masterfully makes sure we get attached to her protagonists. Alma, Arturo, Maribel, Mayor and his family they all come to life and the reader can easily identify with their struggles and ambitions, needs and desires. The migration to America in a search of a better life is a well-known story but once Henriquez expands on it and gives us the details it becomes a real tale of parenthood, hope and love, which even though familiar is bound to make the reader think and feel. The book also sends many important messages on the topic of migrants and immigrants. Despite the fact that the Arturo family go to America legally the reader still witnesses many accounts of xenophobia that lead to the culmination of the book. Their good intentions and constant endeavours are at times met with similar good deeds and at other times with sheer hostility thus painting a very realistic portrait of the world we live in. Through the many different narrators, Cristina Henriquez offers the readers glimpses in a number of different life stories and the way they furl and unfold to lead to the present day. This allows a further discussion on the main themes of the book and it is also a chance for the reader to connect all the dots and finally see the tiny community in its entirety and the way it functions on a daily basis in this unknown land that has become home for so many of the characters.
Cristina Henriquez has created a book that is simultaneously easy to read and hard to digest. The Rivera family, the young love and all the side characters create a story that rings true, a story that will make us question ourselves, our beliefs and our humanity. A story that will ask us to dig deep and remove our prejudices in order to become better people to those around us. And at the end of the day that is what literature should be doing so everyone should definitely give The Book of Unknown Americans a try.
The Book of Unknown Americans is out now, published by Canongate Books.