Behold the Dreamers: A Novel
With this enticing debut novel Imbolo Mbue demonstrates that she knows her stuff as a storyteller, a native Cameroonian, and a New Yorker. She also fully understands the experience of African immigrants to the U.S., legal and illegal, and the culture of Wall Street and its elites. Add to that the fact that she grasps marital challenges and gender dynamics and you have the introduction to a writer to watch.
Behold the Dreamers is the story of two families and their interactions with each other. One family is headed by Jende Jonga, a traditional African man who loves his wife Neni but gives her no place in decision making when hard times arise.
Jende and Neni have come to America with their young son in search of the American Dream. They almost achieve it when Jende is hired to be the chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a wealthy banker at Lehman Brothers. He and his wife, Cindy, a complicated character in her own right, have all that money can buy, except a good marriage.
As the two families lives merge and both Clark and Cindy become increasingly fond of and dependent upon Jende and Neni, things get complicated for both families individually and in terms of their mutual relationship. Themes like loyalty, betrayal, friendship, family, aspirations, class, race, and gender expectations become part of the Jongas’ and Edwardses’ personal stories and their relationship to each other.
The beauty of this book is that its complexities of plot are told in simple language and vivid scenes that immediately draw the reader into the story. It quickly becomes a page turner of increasing drama. By the end, one is left breathlessly waiting for the final denouement, which to Mbue’s credit, is not predictable.
Mbue’s own story is worth recounting. Born to a single mother in rural Cameroon, she spent her childhood in a level of poverty most Americans can’t imagine. With the help of relatives, she made her way to America to study, ultimately earning a master’s degree from Columbia University at night while working during the day. She began a marketing career in New York, married, and started a family. Then the financial crisis hit and she lost her job. That’s when she began writing this novel, so full of verisimilitude.
It’s a story of the failures of the American Dream, the enduring bonds of family, the survival of hope and more. Filled as it is with empathy, humor, pain, and resilience, Mbue can rightfully claim her place among other notable African writers who have skillfully revealed people we might otherwise dismiss. That alone is a gift. To have offered it with such well-honed craft only adds to its pleasure and promise.