Imbolo Mbue

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Behold the Dreamers

Mbue, Imbolo

Last Updated: Jul-05-2022
Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel


In the basement of the apartment building where I live, down the hall from the small exercise room, there are two plain wooden bookcases. Each one has five shelves, and they are filled to overflowing with books that people have finished reading and that are now available for the taking. The books cover the gamut of fiction to history to self-help and everything in between. Under pressure to unclutter our apartment, I have added about 30 books to this library. The books do not come with any recommendation and so there is no way to know if the original owners liked the book or got rid of it because they could not get passed the first chapter. I am a frequent borrower. About two weeks ago, I scanned the shelves again and on one of the lower shelves, I noticed this book by Imbolo Mbue. I remembered that one of her books had been selected by the editors of the New York Times as one of the Best Books of the year 2021 so I picked up this earlier book. Two weeks later, I am here to report that I am glad I did.

The novel is a moving story of two families whose fates get intertwined in the year 2008. One family is a couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, with their 6-year-old son. They have recently come to the United States from Cameroon. They chose to try their luck in New York in the hope of escaping the dreary life that they see in their future if they stayed where they were. The other family, Clark and Cindy Edwards, is a wealthy couple living in a posh apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan. They seem to have it all -- health , wealth, and the freedom to do whatever they want. Clark is a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers, and he interviews Jende for a job as his chauffeur in the opening chapter. Jende gets the job, and it is a game changer for the Jongas. It gives Jende the self-confidence that he is a traditional provider for his family and allows Neni to enroll in school and actualize her goal of becoming a pharmacist. For both of them, they can feel more comfortable with the idea of a growing family. They have received their ticket to the American dream.

However, while the Edwards are the picture of success to all who see them at the glamorous parties and fund raisers they host and attend, there are cracks beneath the surface of their dream life. Clark is working 16-hour days to try to stave off the imminent bankruptcy of Lehman and the financial collapse that will follow in its wake. Cindy is a psychologically traumatized person who struggles to keep her family whole and provide a loving and safe haven for her two sons. Ultimately, Clark is forced to leave Lehman and take up a job at Barclays Bank. His wife suspecting infidelity ultimately succumbs to drug and alcohol abuse. The Jendes lose their financial footing and are forced to confront the question -- where will they be best able to live wholesome lives of meaning and self-worth? They have to decide whether to persevere and try to make things work in New York or whether to return to their native country, Cameroon. The book ends with a question from the Jongas’ older son to his parents, “Home?” Mbue artfully asks this same question to  her readers.

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