The search for a better life is at the heart of Imbolo Mbue’s impressive debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers.”
The book begins in New York City in the days leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. It tells the intertwining stories of a young immigrant couple from the Republic of Cameroon in Africa who are desperate to get legal clearance to stay in America, and a wealthy Wall Street executive and his wife who appear to have it all — but under the surface are facing their own struggles.
Jende and Neni Jonga live in a small one-bedroom apartment in Harlem, but they harbor big dreams for a better life in their new country — provided they can just get the necessary papers to legally stay here. Clark and Cindy Edwards have homes on the Upper East Side and the Hamptons but they also face troubles, especially after Clark’s company, Lehman Brothers, files for bankruptcy. The two couples’ lives intersect when Jende is hired as Clark’s chauffeur, and Neni, a student who hopes to someday become a pharmacist, becomes acquainted with Cindy and works for her as part of her domestic staff.
Mbue, a native of Cameroon who now lives in New York City, draws on personal experiences to describe the lives and challenges of the immigrant couple. Her characters are from Limbe, the same Cameroonian town where she was born and grew up, and they moved to a small apartment in Harlem, a part of the city where she also once lived. She had no such deep personal insights into the lives of her other main characters, the wealthy Edwardses, yet she is equally convincing in their depiction. That’s no small feat for any writer, and especially noteworthy for a first-time novelist.
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“Behold the Dreamers” won the 2017 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was named a 2017 Oprah Book Club Selection and a best book of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, The Guardian and others. Mbue also was a featured speaker at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference this past summer.
“Behold the Dreamers” feels impeccably timely, even though its action takes place nearly a decade ago. Immigration, family values and the struggle for power and class are among the powerful issues the book explores, as the characters fight to protect their families in a world tossed upside down.
There are no heroes or villains in this story, just well-drawn characters that leave you feeling for them. While the novel deals with highly politicized topics, the book never feels partisan, or even political. In interviews, Mbue has acknowledged it was not her intention to come down on either side of the immigration debate. “If you’re pro-immigration, there’s something in the novel to support your argument,” she is quoted as saying. “If you’re anti-immigration, there’s something in there to support your argument, too. My goal was to tell the story completely and leave it up to the reader to interpret it in whichever way fits their worldviews.”
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows are online at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to previous interviews anytime, anywhere, download our free app from Google Play or the App Store.