Thursday, 11 March 2021

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
Published by Canongate on the 11th March 2021.

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, How Beautiful We Were tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean-up and financial reparations are made – and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest only. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. But their fight will come at a steep price . . . one which generation after generation will have to pay.

Told through the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula, How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold onto its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.

How Beautiful We Were is an environmental novel exploring how an American oil company's irresponsible practices and lack of care causes the gradual death of a small African village, Kosawa, from pollution. It'a David and Goliath story of a powerless people attempting to establish their right to Not have their farmlands regularly flooded by leaking oil pipes and Not to have their river used as a dumping ground for industrial waste. In the face of commercial and political greed through, and with the distant decision makers unaffected personally, Kosawa's Sisyphean struggle will take generations to be resolved.

Having already read a couple of early reviews, I was prepared for the change of pace that occurs after about a fifth of the novel. It's a realistic reflection of the changes of mindset in Kosawa, but I did find the device to be a little disconcerting as a reader. I wondered if a stronger Part 1 and Part 2 distinction would help? The leaders of Kosawa realise that the swift favourable response they had been led to expect from Pexton, the oil company, is just the first in many obstacles and the whole process will be stacked in favour of money, not lives.

Mbue tells her story from several increasingly desperate perspectives which I liked as it allowed me to hear a whole chorus of Kosawan voices. The primarily agricultural village would already have been struggling against modernity, but being sold out so others can profit appears to be the final straw. What Mbue effectively puts across here is  for how long these people must suffer in isolation. Kosawa is a single fictional community, but its story is being repeated for real in hundreds, probably thousands, of impoverished communities across the globe right now. It's all very well for us in the rich countries to tut and sigh and maybe donate a tenner towards a school bus to alleviate our consciences. However, until we stop expecting people with far less than ourselves to pay the price for our luxuries, How Beautiful We Were is a story that will continue to ring uncomfortably true.

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Imbolo Mbue / Historical fiction / Books from Cameroon

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