Behold the Dreamers

Mbue, Imbolo

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Trachtman, Howard
  • Date of entry: Jul-05-2022


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.


I imagine that most authors struggle to maintain the fragile balance between depicting a realistic picture of the world and creating a literary projection that has the power to pull in a reader at page 1 and sustain engagement through to the end of the novel. Mbue has artfully crafted a believable story that is both of the moment and at the same time demonstrates the ability of literature to convey meaning and substance in constructed narratives. The characters are complex and multidimensional. They are not easily categorized as good or bad but rather as people who are doing their best to get by, with all the idiosyncratic and conflicting motives and character traits that define  individuals. Jenge cannot escape the patriarchal attitudes of his Cameroonian family and is brutal when he orders Neni to leave school. But he has a tenderness and a capacity for understanding the plight of others that is sincere and unexpected. His wife is smart and resourceful and surprisingly open to advice from a woman minister in a Washington square church. But her maternal instincts are so strong  that she is willing to blackmail Cindy Edwards about her drug abuse to get money for her family. Clark wrestles with the financial shenanigans that have brought Lehman to the brink of disaster but cannot escape the whirlpool of work and be there to help his wife and sons when they need him. Only Cindy Edwards is a bit novelistic, a character who seems to have been constructed more in service of the plot than the portrayal of a wife caught in unfamiliar threatening territory. The novel is extraordinarily well paced, the dialogue sounds real, and the sequence of events has real life logic.

The central image of seeking the American dream is powerful in its own right, and the novel highlights how elusive that dream can be. The image is intensified by linking it with the immigrants’ journey. The Jongas are the obvious immigrants who have left their homeland in the hopes of achieving a better life in the United States, in the New York that they have read about and seen depicted in movies and on television. This is the physical passage across continents and oceans, through bureaucracies, and the climb up the social ladder. But the Edwards, native Americans are also traveling from their place of origin to a location that they hope will be better than where they set out from. The Edwards want their piece of the American dream as much as the Jongas do. Mbue illustrates how this human fate is shared by two families that at first glance seem so vastly different in their point of departure. In the ongoing political conversations about the most ethical and effective approach to immigration, I suggest that attitudes may be unduly influenced by seeing immigrants as “others,” people with whom we share very little. In fact, immigration is more than a simple voyage from country to country. It is a multidirectional journey along social, familial, political, financial, and even spiritual dimensions. Seen in this light, Mbue may be challenging us to realize that we all share dreams of a better life, immigrants on the move with a desire to travel from humble origins to destinations of greater meaning. Such an expansive view of immigration may help us find common ground that will better serve the needs and aspirations of those already in the United States and those struggling to enter our country.


Random House

Place Published

New York



Page Count