Paradise lost: the relative pain of the rich and poor
A Cameroonian couple's American dreams are dashed amid the global financial crisis
Imbolo Mbue: the author’s debut novel has been acquired for a seven-figure sum. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Behold the Dreamers
Penniless writers and mid-list authors, look away now. Earlier this summer New Fiction reviewed the Californian author Emma Cline’s debut The Girls, which was bought by Random House in a $2 million (€1.7m) two-book deal. Stephanie Danler’s coming-of-age novel Sweetbitter, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s bestseller The Nest and Homegoing by the Ghanaian writer Yaa Gyasi are some of the other big debuts of 2016 that sold for huge advances.
The latest to win the literary lotto is the Cameroonian author Imbolo Mbue, whose debut novel Behold the Dreamers was acquired for a seven-figure sum. Set amid the financial collapse of Wall Street in 2007, the book follows an immigrant couple as they try to make their fortune in a land where opportunity is disappearing.
It is easy to align this debut to the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi’s much loved Americanah. The similarities are many – the hope of the Obama era, studying abroad, an immigrant nanny in a rich white household, an intelligent female voice in Neni Jonge: “Nothing embarrassed her more than black people embarrassing themselves in front of white people by behaving the way white people expect them to behave.”
But while Americanah brings the reader deep into the journey of one immigrant, ultimately offering a more satisfying and cohesive read, Mbue is more ambitious in her aims. Behold the Dreamers tells the story of the decline of two families – the immigrant Jongas and their rich employers, the Edwards – who in turn act as microcosms for the global financial collapse.
Jende Jonga has done three jobs over two years in New York to pay for passage from Limbe, Cameroon, for his wife Neni and young son Liomi. After landing the coveted role of chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a high-level executive at Lehman Brothers, the family’s prospects are looking up. Neni minds the household, works in a care home, takes a summer job in the Edwards’ Hamptons home, and revises at night for pre-calculus exams that might one day lead to her dream of studying pharmacy.
Mbue, who has lived in America for a decade and holds an MA from Columbia, offers a moving and realistic portrayal of immigrant life. From Jende’s nervous sweating, to the smackdown Neni receives from a college dean on the reality of achieving her dreams, to the unjust situations both Jongas are forced into by their employers, their predicaments are instantly sympathetic and engaging.
The cultural and racial observations are fresh, interesting and never laboured. A lawyer Bubakar is a master in “the art of giving clients the best stories of persecution to gain asylum”. Elsewhere, Jende’s friend Winston asks him: “You think a black man gets a good job in this country by sitting in front of white people and telling the truth?”
Jende notes how Americans tend to view African countries as a unit. He responds by telling them he knows someone who lives in Toronto. Neni concludes that “black men and police are palm oil and water”. The family’s deteriorating immigration status means they can’t leave the country: “But if you’re in America, what is there to see outside America?” The reality of that question hits home when Jende’s father dies and he must watch Pa Jonga’s funeral by video.
One of the novel’s great strengths lies in the contrasting worlds of the Jongas and their employers. The First World problems of the Edwards family – Clark’s work worries at Lehman, his jumping ship to Barclay’s and leaving his long-suffering secretary in the lurch; eldest son Vince quitting his prestigious college to find enlightenment in India; wife Cindy’s prescription pill addiction – serve to further highlight the disparity.
Everyone in the novel is suffering, but it’s all relative. Equally, the fallout from the economic crash touches everyone in America, but it will hurt some people a lot more than others. It is to Mbue’s credit that she keeps us guessing which of her many vivid characters will fare the worst.
This climax in the novel comes too early however, with a feeling in the final third that ends are being tied up, unnecessarily at times for minor roles. There is a tendency also to use characters – Clark and Vince in particular – to explain the financial collapse and how greedy capitalism only benefits an elite.
These issues can be overlooked in a book that offers much insight into how the actions of a few can affect, and infect, so many. Behold the Dreamers never rests as it seeks to find out how people bounce back from ruin. “No, you don’t understand,” says Cindy to housemaid Neni, in a typical moment of self-awareness. “Being poor for you in Africa is fine. Most of you are poor over there. The shame of it, it’s not as bad for you.”
That shame and the lengths taken to eradicate it are the core of the book, there for the reader to behold in all its ugly glory.