BookBrowse Reviews Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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Behold the Dreamers

by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue X
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2016, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2017, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Behold the Dreamers shines light on an immigrant family's interactions with their wealthy American employers, even as they labor for a slice of the American dream.

Behold the Dreamers, Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue's debut novel, revolves around two very different families. Jende Jonga has emigrated from Cameroon to the United States, and as the story opens, has finally saved enough money working multiple low-income jobs to allow his wife and son to join him, and to rent a tiny apartment in Harlem.

He is in the process of navigating the complex legalities of staying in the country he loves when he lands his dream job: chauffeur to the wealthy Clark Edwards, a high-ranking member of the financial firm Lehman Brothers (see 'Beyond the Book'). Jonga initially believes the Edwards family is living the American Dream, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that it's on the verge of collapsing under its own very different series of stressors.

The narrative alternately relays the action from Jende's point of view and from that of his wife, Neni. Although told from the immigrants' perspectives, Behold the Dreamers is definitely not a one-sided story, instead it clearly reveals the similarities and contrasts between the Jonga and Edwards families as each attempts to achieve success – and to define what form that might take.

The plot follows the challenges they face, at first simply the day-to-day getting by, and later adapting to the scandal surrounding Lehman Brothers during the collapse of the U.S. housing market (2007-2009). The difficulties the Jongas face are what one might expect – long hours, low wages, dealing with immigration law – but certainly the Edwards family has its struggles as it deals with societal and domestic pressures. The plot isn't intricate, but it is engaging - particularly after the economic crisis, at which point the storyline veers dramatically from the expected narrative arc.

Mbue's main talent is her ability to bring her characters to life. I absolutely fell in love with Jende and his wife; the optimism with which the author infuses these characters is infectious. In spite of the challenges of making ends meet, the couple is excited about the benefits available to themselves and their children in the United States, opportunities they wouldn't have in their native country. At one point Jende tells Clark:

"I thank God every day for this opportunity, sir," he said as he switched from the center to the left lane. "I thank God, and I believe I work hard, and one day I will have a good life here. My parents, they, too, will have a good life in Cameroon. And my son will grow up to be somebody, whatever he wants to be. I believe that anything is possible for anyone who is American. Truly do, sir. And in fact, sir, I hope that one day my son will grow up to be a great man like you."

Statements like these might come across as overly sentimental, but Mbue makes her readers feel like these characters truly mean it; they're not naïve, just very hopeful. They remind us how much many of us born in this country take for granted each day. Equally convincing are Clark and Cindy Edwards, whose failing marriage and inability to appreciate what they have are painted in stark contrast to the Jongas.

The book is not without its flaws. The characters' situations and attitudes during the first two-thirds of the book lack depth. The immigrants are happy and loving in spite of financial hardship, the stresses of dealing with the U.S. legal system, and working multiple jobs to make ends meet, while the Edwards family members are wealthy, unhappy and disconnected from each other. Although all the characters are well-drawn, they initially fit too neatly into their roles. It's only close to the end, as events start spiraling out of control, that the plot becomes more realistic, leading to a much stronger book.

Also, readers never really learn about realistic U.S. attitudes toward race or the immigrant community (improbably, practically everyone is extremely friendly to the Jongas). This is not to say I didn't enjoy the book. I did, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to those interested in reading about the immigrant experience. Behold the Dreamers is an especially good book group selection, as the choices made by each family would make great fodder for discussion.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in August 2016, and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  The Lehman Brothers

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