Imbolo Mbue’s impressive debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, is one of those books that truly lives up to its hype. It’s a superbly written, evocative and riveting read that centres on the illusion of the American dream, a term I’ll use lightly in this piece since the ideals of freedom, equality and financial independence are not inherently American but universal.
The story unfolds through the eyes of the protagonist, Jende Jonga, the pragmatic and good-natured Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, New York, and his smart, determined wife, Neni, detailing how their lives become entwined with that of a wealthy white American family after Jende is employed to chauffeur a Lehman Brothers executive. Both Jende and Neni are enamoured with the idea of the American dream and set about doing what they can to achieve it, while fervently hoping that Jende’s application for asylum is accepted.
During one of their rides, Jende’s boss, Clark Edwards, asks him about his hometown of Limbe, and Jende starts waxing poetic about it. But when Clark demands what Jende is doing in America if Limbe is that wonderful, so strong and unflinching is his faith in the American dream that in almost one breath, he opines ‘Cameroon is no good’ because, unlike America, there’s no upward mobility. In Cameroon, a poor man’s child is guaranteed poverty.
One of the beauties of the novel is its ability to humanise characters one might find despicable, like the Wall Street executive and his morbidly insecure and materialistic wife. Readers are made to understand the reasons behind their actions without totally condoning them. When Neni starts working as a live-in housekeeper for the Edwards’ and accidentally stumbles across Clark’s wife, Cindy, in a compromising position, we’re afforded a look into the root of her entrenched unhappiness.
And though Charles is an absent father and a stressed-out workaholic, we see he’s driven by love for his family and the need to provide every material want for them. He’s also a nice boss to Jende, once inviting him to watch the sunset with him and then reciting a poem about home and belonging, themes that run deeply in the book.
When Lehman goes under, the stress of trying to attain or sustain the American dream brings out the worst in each character. Jende becomes short-tempered and abusive to Neni and their son, Neni turns manipulative and the Edwards’ marriage further deteriorates.
Mbue’s novel dispels the notion that hard work equates wealth, wealth means happiness and poor people are poor because they’re lazy. It’s also an embodiment of the idiom, ‘All glitters isn’t gold’, a subject she recently discussed at the New York State Writers Institute. In her speech, she confessed that growing up in her native Cameroon she never saw America’s poverty on TV and so was shocked by its brutality after she emigrated to the country. She went on to say that homelessness in America surprised her because in Cameroon (a relatively poorer and less developed country than the US) no one was homeless.
Though it may be tempting to draw comparisons to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, perhaps for its focus on the African immigrant experience and its accessible prose, Behold the Dreamers explores different issues. For that reason, anyone who ignores one for the other, thinking they’re the same would be doing themselves a grave disservice.
If there’s one novel you should read this year, this is it.