An illegal immigrant struggles to find a home in America in this moving tale of loneliness and belonging.
Seeing no future for himself in communist Albania, 21-year-old Rejep Etaj crosses the border into Greece, a clannish place where he finds only one friend—Eudoxia Athanasiou, a young Greek-American expat who is herself something of a refugee from family expectations. Shipping out on a freighter, he follows her to her home in New England; she helps him settle, and an ambivalent romance struggles to grow in the face of her bigoted mother’s disapproval and the precariousness of Rejep’s status as an undocumented alien. Rouman provides a quietly realistic yet nerve-wracking take on the practicalities of an immigrant existence. Rejep’s fate hangs on surmounting prosaic challenges such as getting past Eudoxia’s answering machine when he washes up in New Hampshire and mastering the complexities of a janitorial job given to him by a Hungarian-immigrant building manager who admires Rejep’s moxie and sees him as a readily exploitable worker. But the author also vividly illuminates his hero’s conflicted soul. Rejep is proud of having a job, but the menial labor makes him feel like a caged animal; he relishes the exhilaration of leaving Albania for the wide world, but longs for the close-knit village life he left behind. Although he feels isolated, he is awash in a sea of immigrants who are trying to construct communities for themselves, which always entails the exclusion of others whom they see as different. The end of that process is the hermetic anomie of the well-off native-born Americans in the condominium where Rejep works, a place where people live cheek by jowl yet rarely venture into a neighbor’s life. Writing with a limpid prose and a shrewd sympathy for his characters, Rouman finds universality in the travails of an iconic outsider.
A subtle, absorbing portrait of the immigrant experience.