Thursday, July 24, 2014

“The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez – Forgotten by the World

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (Book cover))
The experience of immigration is one that is rather hard to convey in its entirety, with all the troubles, thoughts and emotions in brings about; it is one of those things that needs to be lived through personally so as to be absorbed completely.

Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic and rather unreasonable to ask everyone to become an immigrant for the mere sake of making them understand; thankfully, numerous authors have taken it upon themselves to translate this experience into words, and that is what Cristina Henriquez did, at least in part, in The Book of Unknown Americans.

The story in the book is, in itself, rather simple. It begins by following the Rivera family, composed of Arturo, Alma, and their daughter, Maribel. After the latter sustains a heavy injury, the family decides to move to America where they hope to find a better life. One day, as they are at a dollar store, a boy by the name of Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama, sees Maribel and falls in love at first sight.

From that moment forward, the two families meet and become increasingly engrossed in each other's lives, fates, joys, trials and tribulations, and in the end, feeling responsible for each other despite them being linked by nothing but their own desires.

Dispersed throughout the story are also actual testimonies taken from actual immigrants from Latin America, all of them being unique, poignant and powerful in their content.

Frankly speaking, as far as the story itself went, I did not find myself too enthralled or interested by the daily lives of the two families. I am not saying the writing was bad or the story itself was boring; it's just that there are a few parts and perspectives we could have done without.

However, that is just personal preference, and looking at it objectively, the reader can draw much from all the different perspectives we are allowed to see the events unfold through.

The idea of the failed fairy tale is one as old as the idea of immigration itself; that land far away that was described as a paradise has its fair share of flaws just like any other place. If anything, I sort of wish that more attention was devoted to the exploration of the various emotions, thoughts and personal conflicts brought about by this shattered dream and being a stranger in a strange land, but I figure one can only ask for so much from one novel.

The writing itself is very light and easy to eat through, but the constant changing of perspectives can take a bit of getting used to, especially because the voices sound a bit too similar to each other at times. The various testimonies sprinkled across the novel were, for me at least, the most memorable part about this experience.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (Book cover))
To see the eternal struggles, hopes, successes and failures of those who yearned for a better tomorrow immortalized on paper in powerful sentences is something that is going to stay with you, no matter what.

If the immigrant experience is something that is of fascination to you, if you are looking to find out what it's like to come to the United States from Latin America and start from scratch, without going into too great of a depth in terms of the psychological impact, then I suggest you add this book to your list.

Cristina Henríquez (Author)

Cristina Henríquez

Personal site

Cristina Henriquez is the author of numerous acclaimed novels, including The World in Half and Fall Apart, with her stories having been printed in many reputable publications, such as The New Yorker, The Oxford American, and The Atlantic.

She is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and is the recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award.

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