The Book of Unknown Americans is absolutely beautiful and will wrench your heart out and give it back to you on a platter, bleeding and raw. Cristina Henriquez gives an authentic voice to the faceless and yes, unknown Americans who live their lives with a frustrated dignity, far from all they hold dear and often treated as sub-human. These unknown Americans who leave their homeland for various reasons and out of various needs and end up in America which promised them a liberty that it more often than not fails to deliver. If anything, it delivers the opposite.
Henriquez details the lives of two particular families in detail. The Rivera family who hail from Mexico and the Toro family who are from Panama live in the same apartment building complex and become friends with each, sharing food, laughter and a nostalgia for a home that has changed so much that they wouldn’t recognize it were they to return. The Rivera family come to America hoping to better the mental health of their young, beautiful daughter who suffered brain damage after an accident at her father’s construction site. Mayor, the youngest son of the Toro family, falls in love with Maribel Rivera and as their lives entangle, the families hurtle towards an explosive ending.
Henriquez has an ability to get inside a person’s head and speak from their heart. Even the simplest truth becomes heartbreaking under her pen. She pays meticulous attention to detail in order to draw out a subtle narrative that lets the story breathe even as it guides the reader toward what she wants him/her to experience. The voices of the characters are varied and I really loved how the narrative is interspersed with various voices who all experience immigration in different yet no less real ways.
This book packs a punch and the ending had me sobbing and I rarely cry over books. Beyond its entertainment value, I think The Book of Unknown Americans is an important read for everyone as it pushes for an awareness and some understanding of people and for people who rarely ever get any. Highly recommended.