Monday, 27 February 2017

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

First published in America by Random House in August 2016.

Where to buy this book:
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How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

'New York, 2007: a city of dreamers and strivers, where the newly-arrived and the long-established jostle alike for a place on the ladder of success. And Jende Jonga, who has come from Cameroon, has just set his foot on the first rung. Clark Edwards is a senior partner at Lehman Brothers bank. In need of a discrete and reliable chauffeur, he is too preoccupied to closely check the paperwork of his latest employee. Jende’s new job draws him, his wife Neni and their young son into the privileged orbit of the city’s financial elite. And when Clark’s wife Cindy offers Neni work and takes her into her confidence, the couple begin to believe that the land of opportunity might finally be opening up for them. But there are troubling cracks in their employers’ facades, and when the deep fault lines running beneath the financial world are exposed, the Edwards’ secrets threaten to spill out into the Jonga’s lives. Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way.'

I was excited by the beginning of this very readable novel which explores the American immigration experience from the point of view of Jenda and Neni Jonga, economic migrants from Cameroon who strive to build themselves a good life in New York. Mbue has a good ear for dialogue and I found her central four characters convincing. After a cousin recommends Jende for a chauffeur job, we get an interesting juxtaposition of two families leading almost completely opposite lives. Jende and Neni have little in the way of material possessions, but enjoy strong family bonds and a good relationship. Jende's employer, Clark Edwards, has his Lehman Brothers banking career to thank for his personal wealth. His family lack for nothing in a material sense, but are sadly dysfunctional from an emotional perspective. Money cannot always buy happiness?

Unfortunately, from this strong start, I became increasingly more disappointed as Behold The Dreamers progressed. The narrative struck me as frequently too light and superficial for its themes and I felt uncomfortable with Jende's asylum application being fraudulent and this blithely portrayed as the normal route. In the present near-hysterical political climate regarding migration, refugees and asylum, I think a more responsible approach to the topic is needed. Propagation of the 'all immigrants are liars' myth doesn't help anyone.

The psychological effects of Jende's immigration battle are what particularly drives Mbue's story. As readers we see very little of the bureaucratic process itself, but can understand how the stress affects his temper and divides his family. I didn't find many of their actions actually believable towards the end of the novel though and Neni's passivity is infuriating. Overall, Behold The Dreamers is nicely written and did hold my attention throughout. I liked the range of characters and the evocation of New York, but I would have liked a deeper exploration of this emotionally charged and politically sensitive subject.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Imbolo Mbue / Contemporary fiction / Books from Cameroon


  1. For one that started out so promising I am sorry to hear that as it went on you couldn't enjoy it as much :( I hope you'll be able to enjoy your next read a whole lot more though ^^

    1. It's very readable, just a tad light for my tastes.