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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’

- - Monday, July 7, 2014

By Cristina Henriquez
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 304 pages

The unknowns who Cristina Henriquez pictures in her novel, "The Book of Unknown Americans," are those who come from south of the United States border: the Spanish-speaking people of Central and South America. When they emigrate to North America, they are often treated as one demographic — Hispanics or Latinos. However, they come from countries that differ from each other as much of those of Europe, and so their cultures often differ, too. The immigrant families living in the Delaware apartments where this novel is set can be rueful about this. The Toros are from Panama, and Celia Toro protests against the common idea that Hispanics love tacos. "In Panama we eat chicken and rice!" When her Mexican neighbor asks if she has cinnamon sticks to make hot chocolate Mexican style, she jokes, "It always has to be the Mexican way. Mexico, Mexico. As if the rest of us don't exist." The neighbors gathered at her Christmas party come from Venezuela, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico, so they understand her point.

Not existing — or perhaps, rather, not being seen — is a problem for many of the novel's characters. As Celia Toro notes, they are seen as a group. They can be valued as cheap labor: Rafael Toro cooks in a diner. Arturo Rivera arrives from Mexico to pick mushrooms. On the other hand, they often find themselves denied or ignored as individuals because their issues are misunderstood. When Alma Rivera complains to the police about the unwelcome attentions a teenage bully is paying her daughter Maribel, she is told nothing can be done — and legally it can't, because so far the boy has not injured her. Alma is at a loss, and at a loss again when Arturo loses his job because the economy is poor, nobody is checking whether workers have visas, so the mushroom growers can hire cheaper undocumented labor.

The Riveras did not come to America because they were dirt-poor in Mexico. They were living happily in a home Arturo had built, but Maribel suffered a brain injury in an accident, so Arturo got a visa enabling him to work in the United States, where he could attend a special school. Maribel makes progress. Many of the Riveras' neighbors have also made progress in America. The author allows each of them a section where they can tell their own tales. None of them hit the big time, but most survive the slings and arrows of their new lives and achieve modest success. Their narratives flesh out that general depiction of Hispanic experience with particular life stories that ring true because each speaker has a distinctive voice as well as a personal history.

While these fictional biographies give "The Book of Unknown Americans" a documentary base, the story of the Riveras' life in the United States anchors it as a novel. That story focuses on Maribel and how people respond to her. Her mother and her father feel guilty about the accident, which has destroyed her personality. Yet, the Toros' teenage son Mayor is drawn to her. Because she's beautiful, yes, but also because he, too, has suffered at the hands of school bullies, and even of his father, who insists Mayor follow his older brother's path to soccer stardom. However, while Maribel and Mayor offer each other consolation, and she is more alert and engaged when she is with him, Alma Rivera worries so obsessively that she imposes strict rules for their meetings. Eventually, all meetings become impossible because Mayor is grounded when his father discovers he is not playing soccer.

This tale of star-crossed teenage lovers, shaped as it is by the anxieties of the Riveras and the rigidity of Mayor's father, is a familiar trope, but Cristina Henriquez handles it freshly, so it gives her novel a narrative drive that complements the more static personal accounts of the other characters. Her careful rendering of the tensions that Maribel's accident raises in the Rivera's marriage is a particular strength. Similarly, she handles the impasse between Mayor's parents with tact. Rafael always fears he will lose his job; Celia thinks that as insurance against this, she should get one; he refuses to entertain the idea because he must be the provider.

At the end of "The Book of Unknown Americans" this issue is unresolved. Celia hasn't got a job. Mayor is still not playing soccer. The nosy neighbor is still nosy and still boasting about her two sons in college. Here the author suggests that life goes on, with its ups and downs, swings and roundabouts. She is at her strongest in this depiction of the quotidian. When she lets fate play a hand in her story, she edges toward melodrama. Though this impinges on the suspension of disbelief, the interest and appeal of the novel remain.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.