Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Imbolo Mbue's debut novel depicts contemporary American life from the perspective of an African family seeking refuge. Witty and sharpy observed, Behold the Dreamers is an impressive achievement.

Jende Jonga has brought his wife Neni and son Liomi to America. They have left their native Cameroon, a country in West Africa, hoping to achieve the American Dream. If they work hard, study hard and save hard, then surely all must work out. It is 2007. Hope is in the air. Barack Obama's star is rising. It looks a possibility that America could elect a black man as their president.

With the help of some family connections, Jende manages to get a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior partner with Lehman Brothers bank. Soon his wife, Neni, is offered work by Cindy Edwards, Clark's wife. She is to run their holiday house for a period. Neni does this while studying, hoping to become a pharmacist. The couple are making money and scrupulously saving, but there are major problems concerning their immigration status. The most pressing issue is Jende's work permit, which is due to expire shortly. In the meantime he has applied for asylum, concocting a rather dubious story. Jende and Neni's relationship comes under enormous stress as they go through immigration hell, anxiously waiting on the rulings of court judges. They are desperate to stay in America.

As their lives are swept about on a sea of great uncertainty, the Jongas find themselves drawn more and more into the opulent life of their employers, the Edwards. When Neni works at their holiday house, she is gobsmacked at its luxury. And the food! Neni later gossips with her friend Fatou about how much gourmet food she's been able to enjoy. This show of extravagant riches, however, veils a darker reality. Clark is struggling to satisfy the voracious beast that is the Lehman Brothers bank, with its demands for ever higher returns. Cindy, although surrounded by friends, is chronically insecure and unhappy. She drinks and takes drugs to dull her emotional pain. Soon both Jende and Neni are covering up potentially fatal indiscretions for both Clark and Cindy, terrified of losing their well paying jobs. While Jende and Neni may keep running, hoping to leave any bad luck in their wake, larger forces are brewing in the form of the great financial crash. When it comes, it leaves everyone reeling. Can the Jongas survive when even the super rich are struggling?

Behold the Dreamers comes from first time novelist, Imbolo Mbue, a native of Cameroon who has lived in the United States for the last ten years. The novel skilfully contrasts the fortunes of a couple of hopeful immigrants, their desperate struggles and hardships, against a rich and successful American couple. The Edwards are the ultimate ideal, rich beyond belief, yet miserable. The Jongas are living on hope, luck and hard work. There are no guarantees that the system will be fair to them.

Imbolo Mbue brilliantly captures these two distinct worlds. The affluent Americans are impatient and self-absorbed, but occasionally capable of acts of kindness. The portraits of Jende and Neni Jonga are superb for their detail and depth. Mbue takes the reader through their extreme emotional and psychological states as they are pushed further and further. At one stage Neni tells her pastor that she feels she's becoming a different person, a worse one, due to all the pressure she's under. Behold the Dreamers really gives a palpable sense of what it must be like to live as an immigrant in a foreign country.

This is a novel full of shrewd and subtle observations, especially about race, class and money. While the story is quite ambitious, it doesn't overreach itself. Mbue writes simply and directly, with refreshing clarity.  A novel about the failings of the American Dream is bound to have a moral element, and while it does indirectly speculate on the morality of the American economic and class system, it's not a moralising book. That is left to the reader to decide. It should also be noted that there is a good dose of sly humour in Behold the Dreamers, especially in the exchanges between Neni and her friend Fatou. Neni's view of the world is often quite barbed, sometimes cynical.

Imbolo Mbue's debut is entertaining, instructive, thought provoking and not easily forgotten. A book sure to provoke much thought and discussion.

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue. Published by Fourth Estate. ISBN:  9780008158149  RRP: $29.99

(Release date 1st September 2016)

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