This is another one of those “made the whole project worth it” books.

You almost certainly know this already if you’ve been a regular reader, but hey, not everybody sees every post, so: my big reading project for 2021 (I am the type of person who has “big reading projects”) was to read one book from every US state plus Puerto Rico and Washington DC, along with as many other countries I could fit in. I’m closing in on finishing the states part of the project, although for a lot of the later states the way I’ve been finding books is by Googling “authors from XXX” and then just … picking something. Some states, as you might guess, have less to choose from than others, and, well, Delaware’s not all that damn big.

I chose well on this one, as The Book of Unknown Americans seems pretty likely to be on my Top 10 list at the end of the year. It’s about a small immigrant community– literally an apartment building– in Delaware at the beginning of the Obama administration. You might remember the massive economic upheaval of those years, and trying to survive while the economy is crumbling around you is absolutely a theme of the book. The book uses the multiple-narrators/POVs style that I will forever associate with Game of Thrones and probably ought not to, following ten or so different people from several different families. The common thread is that they’re all Spanish-speaking immigrants (the two main families are from Mexico and Panama, and others are from other places) or first-generation Americans; some of them are legal, some are not, and they all have different reasons for being here. It’s outstandingly well-done across the board, but there are two highlights I wanted to talk about a little bit.

First, I felt like the book really does a great job of capturing the frustration of being an educated and talented person who has moved somewhere where you don’t speak the language and where your skills are either undervalued or no longer useful. One of the families arrives in Delaware as the book begins, and things as simple as trying to figure out where to buy food are many times as complicated as they need to be because of language and cultural barriers. They end up getting food from a gas station for a while (and feeling like they’re being ripped off because of the high prices) until someone else clues them in on better places to go. Later in the book, there’s a scene where a mother has to confront a local shithead who has been abusing her daughter, and all she’s able to say to him is “leave alone.”

Second, and I’m not going to go into details here because I don’t want to spoil anything, but this book contains what might be the best depiction of a first love that I’ve ever seen. The relationship between Maribel and Mayor is astonishingly sweet, and if I say another word about it I’ll spoil stuff, so just trust me.

My only real complaint is the ending; you grow attached to a lot of these characters and want good things to happen to them, and … well. You’re going to have a moment where you realize what’s about to happen and the dread is going to kick in, and then you’re going to find out you were right, and then the book’s going to manage to end on a powerful and hopeful note somehow anyway, but it’s bittersweet as hell and I didn’t want bittersweet, I wanted happy. But damn, this is a hell of a read, and you should go pick it up. I’m sure I’ll be talking about it again in a couple of months.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

2 thoughts on “#REVIEW: THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS, by Cristina Henríquez

  1. I have to agree with you on this one. It’s an excellent reading choice. I read it several years ago and it pops into my mind every so often to the point that I’m thinking it’s time to read it again

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    1. I have been reconsidering my description of the ending as “bittersweet,” to be honest, and am thinking about revisiting or adding to the review. It’s rare that I’m still thinking this deeply about a book this long after finishing it, so that’s another point in its favor.

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