Published by Random House
Publication date: August 23rd 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Debut, Fiction
Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel Behold the Dreamers falls into a quirky category of mine—books with titles that perfectly encapsulate the story. This novel is the American dream from two vastly different perspectives—one, that of an immigrant here on a limited work visa and the other, an investment banker. Jende Jonga is hired as a chauffeur by Clark Edwards, the banker. His thirty-five-thousand-dollar salary means little to Clark, but makes a world of difference to Jende because he can stop driving a cab and his wife, Neni, can cut back on her hours as a home care nurse to focus on raising their son and continue going to school to become a pharmacist.
In Behold the Dreamers Mbue uses Jende and Clark to turn stereotypes inside out. Basically, Jende is claiming he needs asylum from Cameroon, but his argument is weak at best. Clark works at Lehman Brothers and it’s the days leading up to the financial crash of 2008—do I need to say more? On the surface both of these characters are of a type to make people angry and yet, in Mbue’s hands we see beyond the labels. Jende and Neni are not taking advantage of life in America—they are working working working to earn a place in this country. Clark and Cindy are not the idle, arrogant rich—they appreciate what they have and those who work for them. Each is nuanced by Mbue, making it difficult for labels to stick.
Unfortunately, this is a delicate balance and as the financial disaster of 2008 approaches so too does the disaster of Jende’s immigration status. Here Mbue begins to pull apart the structure that fostered the best in each of her characters. As each scrambles to find security in their world what were the amicable and enjoyable relationships between Jende, Clark, Cindy and Neni become stripped of the niceties. Suddenly, the intimacy and knowledge each couple holds about the other turns from textured to a blunt weapon. The movement from good to bad is jarring and without subtlety—unlike the rest of the novel.
Aside from the rapid personality shift amongst the characters in Behold the Dreamers the novel is touching and ultimately, sad. It is filled with people doing the best they can to provide for those they love and in this way, Mbue conveys the experience beautifully. For some there will be success, but only with adjusted expectations and that is where both the sadness and the reality of the American dream is to be found.