Chasing the American dream, a review of Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers” — Olukorede S. Yishau
In the alluring opening paragraphs of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, we meet Jende, a Camerounian, who is in New York in search of the golden fleece. His Limbe hometown could not give him what he wanted. So, he applied for an American visa and lied to the consular that he would only be gone for three months when he was sure he was going and only going to return after catching up with the elusive American dream.
When we first meet Jende Jonga, he is on the way to an interview with a Wall Street executive. He knows nothing about the troubles of the man nor is he aware of the troubles of the firm the man works for. His desire is to get the job and he gets the job and in his moment of excitement we are introduced to his wife, Neni who has a son, Liomi, for him. We soon find out the trouble he went through before he could marry her because her rich father did not see the good in him.
As we read on, we discover Jende is trying to get a United States permanent residency through asylum. A Nigerian lawyer, Bubakar, is the one helping him. The Immmigration sees through his cooked-up story and denies his application. When Bubakar breaks this news to him, his sadness knows no bounds. Neni is crestfallen when he breaks the news to her. With time, he finds out from Bubakar that Immigration issues in America are never straight-jacketed and there are avenues that can be exploited to keep him in America for years and years. He relaxes on hearing this news and concentrates on his job as a chauffeur to Mr Clark Edwards and his family.
While on his job as a chauffeur, Jende discovers that all is not well with the firm where his boss works. Amid this his wife stumbles on Mrs Cindy Edwards in a condition that suggests she is on drugs.
The novel, in the main, is the story of Jende and Neni, but on another level, it is also the tale of the Edwards, whose travails unveil as Neni takes a short term job in their vacation home and she learns that this seemingly perfect family is far from perfect. While her husband discovers that all is not well with Clark Edwards’ career, Neni is let into the dysfunction in the family. First, she stumbles on Mrs Edwards in a drugged state, which leads to the rich woman letting her in on her rough background and all she had to endure to make it in life, including an abusive mother. She also discovers that the duo had had cause to see therapists for one challenge or the other. Second, she discovers their son is leaving home. His decision to abandon law school and move to India fittingly unravels this otherwise enviable family.
The heavens soon fall when the firm at which Mr Clark Edwards works collapses like a pack of cards. The collapse comes with implications for Jende and Neni Jonga because their lives are intertwined with the Edwards. It is at this point that the centre finds it impossible to hold. Things have indeed fallen apart for the two families and difficult decisions have to be made and loyalty is put on trial and rigorously tested.
With the turn of events, Cindy puts Jende in a difficult position. She orders him to give her a written report of everywhere he drives her husband to. His reluctance makes her threaten his job and leaves him in a dilemma. How that is resolved is one of the many beauties of this amazing read.
The background to this well-heeled book is the mess that atimes goes on in the corporate world. In this case, it is Wall Street. Executives manipulate figures and by the time the secret is out, the damage sometimes leads to recession and other negative economic indexes. The fall of this giant firm, where books are cooked, is linked intelligently to the global financial crisis experienced between 2007 and 2008. Mbue uses this very technical background in such a way that the shine is not taken out of the stories of the two couples.
Another backdrop in this novel is the excitement that preceded the emergence of Barack Obama as the first Black President of the United States. We see traces of the excitement in the novel. We also see the joy that follows his eventual crowning as America’s number one citizen.
In all, Mbue tells a beautiful story about family, about wealth and its side effects, about poverty and its hassles, about being a product of rape and its far-reaching implications, about parenting and its dark alleys, about New York and its heavens and its hell and about America and its treatment of immigrants. America comes across as a country with dual personalities: one is blessed and the other is doomed. We also see Cameroun and Camerounians. Limbe especially comes alive screaming in all its poverty-stricken elegance.
In layered but easy-to-follow prose, she immerses us in the worlds of these two couples brought together by fate despite the differences between them. The characters are well-developed. We meet them in all their glories, failures and illusions of grandeur. We see their humanity screaming through the pages.
Her treatment of undocumented immigration is compassionate, surreal and well-dissected. It opens our eyes to angles hitherto unexplored.
Mbue displays a sterling command of her writing gifts and serves us, in many instances, witty lines that bring smiles to the face.
The pace of this work is swift and compassionate in equal measure and despite the heavy themes about immigration and family, global financial crisis and more, turning the pages is an obligation.
-Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father and Vaults of Secrets.