Beginning in 2008, America entered the Great Recession, which stunted the market economy and threatened to collapse much of the financial sector. Considered the worst recession since the Great Depression, its effects were felt worldwide. For years, particularly in the United States, unemployment rates rose, housing prices plummeted, and income levels dipped causing many to worry about their financial future—effects that continue to linger today.
This is the landscape chosen by Cameroonian native Imbolo Mbue for her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers. Set in New York City, the book follows Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who moves to Harlem in 2005, dreaming of fresh opportunities for success and prosperity. Two years later, he collects enough money to send for his wife, Neni, and their young son who join him in America to begin their new life together.
During the fall of 2007, Jende secures employment as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Before long, Jende becomes the driver for the entire Edwards family, a task for which he is unendingly grateful. The job promises a steady income sufficient to cover his family’s basic needs and fuel his wife’s aspirations of continuing her education to become a pharmacist. Yet, certain obstacles remain.
By the time of his employment, the clock is ticking on the legal status of Jende’s visitor visa. With no guarantees of an extension, he hires an affordable immigration lawyer to represent his case. Then, without warning, the financial crisis hits and Lehman Brothers folds, jeopardizing Jende’s job and the livelihood of his family as well as that of the Edwards.
For a debut novel, Mbue draws readers into the Cameroonian experience with graceful ease. Her prose creates an outside-looking-in effect that permits her to surface facets of the American dream that remain unnoticed by those who regularly enjoy its benefits.
One of those facets is the supposed security of wealth. For Jende, Clark Edwards embodies the American dream. Although his long working hours at Lehman Brothers make it impossible for close relationships with his wife and children, it seems a fair trade for the luxury of an upscale lifestyle. The other members of the Edwards family don’t share such sentiments. For Clark’s wife, Cindy, their wealth is a blessing and a curse, permitting her broad comforts while pressuring her to maintain a certain positive veneer.
The same could be said of Neni. America’s allure for her has less to do with financial prosperity as the opportunity to exercise freedom, something she had little of in Cameroon. As she labors to care for her husband and son, she also dreams of her own career and independence. Mbue uses these subtle differences to envision the American dream as a prism rather than a one-size-fits-all product and to demonstrate how the environments we inhabit shape our longings for the future. Place unconsciously educates.
While the novel plunges readers into the immigrant experience, its character development suffers from a general absence of lessons learned from the consequences of mistakes—that goes for both the Jongas and the Edwards. As cracks appear in their families and marriages, life goes on with little change. If anything, Clark’s character experiences the highest level of transformation despite playing a supporting role throughout much of the book.
On certain occasions, Mbue also weaves events into her narrative that feel forced, one in particular having to do with an out-of-character decision on the part of Neni to provide finances for her family. Together, these weaknesses make it difficult to engage emotionally with Jende, Neni, and even more so with the Edwards who remain at an even further distance.
Behold the Dreamers is a pleasant tale if you’re looking to experience the day-to-day details of an immigrant—court appeals, culture shock, fear of deportation, and so on. But it fails to deliver the emotional gravitas of similar contemporary offerings. For all of our time spent on ideological or legislative debates, story is what will claim the much-discussed topic of immigration. Without question, Mbue is a worthy voice whose work signals a promising future. Yet, while the alluring plot of her novel marks an ambitious entrance into the literary world, Behold the Dreamers lacks the ability to leave a truly lasting impression.
Building Your Bookshelf
The Destroyers by Christopher Bollen
Broke and out of luck, Ian Bledsoe heads to the Greek island of Patmos to meet up with his now affluent childhood friend Charlie. In need of a fresh start, his time in Greece begins lavishly with lazy afternoons on Charlie’s yacht and plenty of rich food and drink. Before long, he agrees to become a partner in an upcoming business venture with his friend. Things are looking up until Charlie suddenly disappears, which triggers a manhunt shrouded in mystery and the apocalyptic undertones of the island itself.
The Changeling by Victor Lavalle
Apollo Kagwa is a simple man with the life of his dreams. He sells antique books, married his sweetheart Emma, and recently became a father. Committed to his family, he grows concerned when Emma begins to suffer from postpartum depression, so he takes on a greater load of caring for their son. But her condition only grows worse and ultimately leads her to commit a horrifying act that tears their family apart. Even more, she vanishes without a trace. As he begins to grieve the family he once had, Apollo meets a man who claims to know Emma’s whereabouts, which sets him on a journey to find her—a journey that reveals those he loved were far more than he once thought.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
At first glance, the world in The Power is no different from our own aside from one small twist. Teenage girls around the world suddenly find themselves able to wield extraordinary power that can inflict tremendous pain on others and even cause death if unrestrained. This shift changes the entire power structure of society, flipping the world on its head. Following a handful of young girls, the novel weaves their stories to experimentally explore the ways in which life would change with women in charge . . . or whether it would change at all.
Cover image by Nicola Fioravanti.
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