24 August 2016
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy
Named one of BuzzFeed’s “Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer”
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.
When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
I was not lucky enough to get an early galley copy of Behold the Dreamers but I heard so many good things about it. Cameroonian immigrant family working for a white family who gets their money from Lehman Brothers in 2008? Gimmie. I did finally luck into an Edelweiss approval this month! So I was able to read it before publication (almost - the DRC expired with about 30 pages to go! Curses! So I had to read those quickly at the store.)
The glue in this novel is the relationship between Jende and Neni. Both of them have huge dreams. Jende wishes to be someone important, perhaps a businessman, but someone who can prove to his family back in Limbe that he is more than just the garbage man who knocked up his girlfriend (even though he was able to earn enough to later bring her to the US and marry her here). He wants his son to get a good education, become a doctor or lawyer. Someone with money. Neni wants desperately to finish her education, something almost impossible as a single(-ish) mom in Cameroon, so she starts classes at a community college with the ultimate goal of becoming a pharmacist. When Jende lands a well-paying job as the private chauffeur to the Edwards family - financier father, ladies-who-lunch mother, law-student-turned-spiritual wanderer elder son, precocious younger son - it looks as if the family's fortunes are rising.
Until the bottom falls out of Lehman Brothers, as it did in any investment company in 2008 who cooked their books and used those wretched subprime mortgages. Mr. Edwards winds up in an awkward situation (read: tabloid expose). Jende loses his job. The Jonga's asylum application becomes complicated. And tensions within both families reach the boiling point.
Behold the Dreamers is a rich, textured novel about one immigrant family's experiences during the economic downturn of 2008-2009. The Jongas are in pursuit of the American Dream - the idea that any person can have a good life if he or she works hard and follows the rules. It's the dream that I, as a white American citizen, was told my Germanic ancestors crossed the Atlantic for and that presumably is the same dream that pulls twenty-first century emigrants here from all over the world. But the system is working against the Jongas (immigration/INS, financial, family ties back in Cameroon, institutionalized racism) and it pushes Jende and Neni to make hard choices. Mbue's omniscient narrator does not judge the characters. The reader is allowed to determine whether characters' morals or decisions are "bad" or "good" and I really enjoyed that. Also, the writing is absolutely fabulous.
I wanted perhaps a little bit more closure at the end (no spoilers). It felt a little one-sided in those last 5-10 pages, in my opinion, but it doesn't take anything away from the book as a whole. I will be thinking about the Jonga family, particularly Neni, for a long time.
Behold the Dreamers is available now in the US wherever books are sold.
Dear FTC: I read most of this book from a digital galley via Edelweiss but it expired so I had to borrow a finished copy from my store.