Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Written in a direct yet luminous prose, Behold the Dreamers chronicles the trials, and occasional joys, of a Cameroonian couple in New York. The Jongas move to America to improve their circumstances. In pursuit of the elusive American Dream Jende secures a position as chauffeur to a Wall Street senior executive while his wife Neni is studying to become a pharmacist. Neni eventually also begins to work for Jende’s employer, working under Clark’s wife, Cindy.
Imbolo Mbue brilliantly evokes time (2008-2009) and place (New York). She captures, in particular, the apprehensive atmosphere pre and after the crash, the hope brought by Obama’s presidency, as well as showcasing the realities and ramifications of racial and class disparities in America.
Although there are a multitude of characters, the Jongas remain at the heart of this novel. Mbue captures their experiences in America with precision and empathy. From the Jongas’ attempt to assimilate to this other culture and to understand how they fit in this new society, to their many hardships. The threats of deportation and unemployment become constants in their lives, and the Jongas will try their hardest to keep these at bay.
I appreciated how imperfect Mbue’s characters were. Jende and Neni make bad choices or behave selfishly. Yet, given their precarious positions, readers will have a hard time condemning them. The Edwards’ too, for all their privilege as a white and wealthy American couple, are given depth. Although we see them only through the eyes of Jende and Neni, we are given an impression of what kind of people they are, for better or worse. The juxtaposition between the Jongas’ and Edwards’ lifestyles is a stark one, yet Mbue does not paint either couple as good or bad.
Mbue provides a rich commentary on class, immigration, race, American society, consumerism, and, of course, the American Dream. The characters populating this novel are compelling, if not always likeable. The sorrow and suffering the Jongas’ experience are somewhat alleviated by the author’s subtle irony or by the humour provided by their closest friends.

If I had to rate the first half of this novel I probably would have given it a strong 4 stars, however, certain events in the latter half lessened my overall appreciation. I had a hard time glossing over Jende’s behaviour, and, if I had to be completely honest, his actions seemed a bit out of character. The subtlety that had made the first part so poignant is also lost, and I found myself growing frustrated by the characters’ arcs. I also would have liked to see more of the Jongas’ relationship with their parents (they are only alluded to now and then).

Still, I loved the author’s prose and her piercing observations (on love, ambition, family, survival). Mbue is a clearly talented writer and I look forward to reading more by her.

my rating: ★★★½

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