The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Review by M (adult fiction)
The Book of Unknown Americans is a immigration story. I will never tire of these. This one is especially tender and it's also a little different to some of the others that I have read.
The novel puts ‘parents doing their best for their children’ at its heart. The main plot follows the Rivera family who leave a life that they love in Mexico in order for their teen daughter, Maribel, to attend a special needs school in the USA. They arrive in Delaware to find that their new home is in a bare grey apartment building in the middle of nowhere.
From here on, the novel really is The Book of Unknown Americans and it follows this premise in both its narrative structure and in its plot. While the plot of the Rivera family (how they came to be here and how they get on) brings flow to the novel, it’s the apartment building residents and a tragically bittersweet coming-of-age tale that really bring the novel to life.
The chapters are narrated by different characters, and all of them are people who are South American immigrants residing in the same block as the Riveras. Some of these chapters add to the development of the main plot but a few of them are an aside, where the character simply tells us how they came to live here – and their stories are all so different yet so similar too. In this way, a varied and moving picture of immigration is created. Mixed in with all the poverty and sorrows, there is a lot of joy, and hope, and life.
The UK cover (pictured here) fittingly combines the tone, hue and themes of the novel: a variety of South American people with their hopes, dreams, stories and labours holding up America. This is the statue of liberty as we don’t usually see it, with its added textured colours giving life to what is often just a grey structure.
Publication details: 5 June 2014, Canongate, Edinburgh, trade paperbackThis copy: for review from the publisher