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Behold the Dreamers


Behold the Dreamers

BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is an expertly wrought, wholly unique and sorely needed masterpiece. With this debut, Imbolo Mbue distinguishes herself as an incisive critic and a dexterous storyteller.

The novel centers on a Cameroonian couple, beginning in 2007. Jende Jonga has labored to immigrate to America, and worked even harder to bring over his wife, Neni, and their young son, Liomi. After months of fruitless job applications, while the family struggles in a small Harlem apartment, Jende lands an interview for the position of full-time chauffeur for a powerful Wall Street executive through the grace of his friends and their connections. He gets the job.

Here at last, it seems, are the answers to their prayers: their way into the American Dream. Mr. Edwards demands punctuality, discretion and loyalty, but he's comparatively fair and generous. Jende likes driving around an important man to important meetings, dressed like one himself. He becomes more and more vital to Mr. Edwards, coming to also serve as chauffeur to Mrs. Edwards and her social engagements, and their young son Mighty, who is just around Liomi's age. The job means that Jende and Neni can save money to send Liomi to decent American schools, to indulge in simple American luxuries, to send Neni to school to become a pharmacist, to move somewhere nicer one day. Cindy and Clark Edwards come to appreciate and trust Jende so much that Neni is employed as their summer housekeeper by Cindy, allowing her to save extra cash while continuing her studies. They are on their way, and the Edwards, especially Mighty, seem to be benefiting as well.

"This debut is entirely unique, poignant and striking. It’s simply excellent fiction, with a tight plot that avoids convention and always surprises, and characters and dynamics that breathe right off the page."

The company Mr. Edwards works for, however, is Lehman Brothers. Jende begins to overhear some suspicious and unnerving conversations in the car, while Neni uncovers a side to Cindy that the privileged wife certainly wanted no one to see. As the carefully constructed façades fall, neither family will remain the same.

All the characters are superbly wrought and believable. There are no true villains here --- only authentic people trying to make the best lives possible for themselves and their loved ones, even if their loved ones don't agree with what "best" means, or how to achieve it. Mbue breathes life into archetypes we've come to take for granted: the African immigrant hired help, the sleazy Wall Street executive, the overworked and hardworking immigrant wife and mother, the vapid Wall Street debutante. She peels back the misconceptions, delves into the origins of the stereotypes, and grants her readers a fuller exploration of where these classes and individuals actually come from --- why they behave and interact the way they do.

Her work is nothing short of genius. Who would have thought to tell an immigrant story and explore the fallout of Lehman Brothers through the hired help of an executive? There was a gap in our literary canon, and this novel fills it beautifully. As Mbue tackles the recession, immigration, racism, privilege, love, identity and family, she weaves a full and unapologetic critical narrative with the threads of real experiences and relationships. Every aspect of the novel is delicately yet incisively explored. She is never heavy-handed, but always unforgiving --- as unforgiving as the devastation of deportation, as the far-reaching fallout of the recession. She is never indulgent, but always sensitive --- sensitive towards lived experiences of pain and disenfranchisement, and the realities of intersectional oppression. She pulls no punches, yet explores very real, current issues with love and levity.

It's impossible to complete reading this book without a broadened mind and opened heart. The brutality of the immigration and deportation systems, the spaces where worlds separated by privilege intersect, the tensions that can emerge in even the most perfect-looking marriages --- Mbue’s writing is astute, the characters sharply real and the narrative itself addictively immersive.

Behold the dreamers, who have been promised a land within which to build their castles in the sky. Mbue’s adroitly rendered New York is almost a character of its own, filled with as much promise and detachment as the sun. Greatness happens here, but who’s to say at what cost --- or that you’ll be a part of it? This debut is entirely unique, poignant and striking. It’s simply excellent fiction, with a tight plot that avoids convention and always surprises, and characters and dynamics that breathe right off the page. This is a refreshing, phenomenal and crucial work, and I eagerly anticipate further greatness from Imbolo Mbue.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on August 23, 2016

Behold the Dreamers
by Imbolo Mbue

  • Publication Date: June 26, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0525509712
  • ISBN-13: 9780525509714