Not long ago, I reviewed Americanah, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about Nigerian immigrants and their American experiences. Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers offers a stunning Cameroonian point/counterpoint to Adichie’s perceptions. I realize that Nigerians and Cameroonians come from quite different backgrounds and cultures, and therefore their experiences are bound to be different. But these very “diverse” looks at the American dream are fascinating to compare. Where Adichie’s protagonist attends college and graduate school, and ultimately has a successful career, Mbue’s characters face continuous financial struggles and psychological hardships. Where Adichie holds the American dream at arm’s length, and analyzes it somewhat dispassionately, Mbue presents a closer imperative and a far harsher reality.
Jende Jonga lives in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. Jende lacks a green card, and so must work for minimal wages. Neni attends a community college on a student visa, but an unplanned pregnancy soon renders her papers problematic, too. Adichie’s protagonist integrates with American society, even as she critiques it. Jende and Neni, in contrast, live on the fringe of the American dream, relying heavily on their Cameroonian cultural expectations and mores. As I read Behold the Dreamers, I constantly questioned why Jende or Neni didn’t do this, or ask that, or pursue another possibility. But of course I am an American, and this is a novel written from a Cameroonian point of view. Their actions, I feel certain, were totally in keeping with their ethnic heritage.
Life for the Jongas changes radically when Jende receives a job offer from a Lehman Brothers executive. Suddenly Jende is earning a decent salary as the family chauffeur. Neni, too, begins working for the Edwardses, spending the summer of 2008 as a combination housekeeper and babysitter. Since we all know what happened to Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008, we can easily imagine how the plot of Behold the Dreamers must unfold. In fact, I began reading this novel with a preconceived notion of what would happen; I suspect most readers (after scanning the back cover) would agree.
Mbue turned my expectations upside down. While the economic crash of 2008 certainly affects the dreams of all the characters in Behold the Dreamers—not just the Jongas but the Edwardses, too—the narrative line twists and turns in unanticipated ways. Not once does Mbue follow a trite path. Rather, she writes with subtlety and imagination. I’d love to tell you more, but this is a novel where revealing the plot would thoroughly spoil the reader’s experience. Suffice to say, you’ll be surprised.
I can, however, tell you about some special ingredients you’ll find in Behold the Dreamers’ pages. Mbue skillfully moves between cultures, revealing how faraway Cameroon is never truly left behind. Linguistically she moves between cultures, too, with a deftness I quite admired. Not for a moment does the reader forget the Jongas’ heritage, even as they pursue their American dreams. Gender roles are central to this novel, too, as Jende works hard to support his family financially, even as Neni works hard to support them psychologically. In this respect, the similarities and the differences between the Edwards’ dynamics and the Jongas’ is striking, and very much a part of what makes this novel so very provocative. I appreciate books that bring cultural imperatives into play. Behold the Dreamers does so effectively, and with great success. – Ann Ronald
Behold the Dreamers is Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel.