Written by Imbolo Mbue
Audiobook read by Prentice Onayemi
Published by Random House Publishing Group on August 23rd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Source: public library via Overdrive
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
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.
Praise for Behold the Dreamers“A debut novel by a young woman from Cameroon that illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse . . . Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller.”—The Washington Post
“Mbue writes with great confidence and warmth. . . . There are a lot of spinning plates and Mbue balances them skillfully, keeping everything in motion. . . . A capacious, big-hearted novel.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Mbue’s writing is warm and captivating.”—People (book of the week)
“[Mbue’s] book isn’t the first work of fiction to grapple with the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, but it’s surely one of the best. . . . It’s a novel that depicts a country both blessed and doomed, on top of the world, but always at risk of losing its balance. It is, in other words, quintessentially American.”—NPR
“Imbolo Mbue’s masterful debut about an immigrant family struggling to obtain the elusive American Dream in Harlem will have you feeling for each character from the moment you crack it open.”—In Style
“This story is one that needs to be told.”—Bust
“Behold the Dreamers challenges us all to consider what it takes to make us genuinely content, and how long is too long to live with our dreams deferred.”—O: The Oprah Magazine“[A] beautiful, empathetic novel . . . Mbue’s narrative energy and sympathetic eye soon render . . . commonplace ingredients vivid, complex, and essential.”—The Boston Globe
“A witty, compassionate, swiftly paced novel that takes on race, immigration, family and the dangers of capitalist excess.”—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Mbue [is] a deft, often lyrical observer. . . . [Her] meticulous storytelling announces a writer in command of her gifts, plumbing the desires and disappointments of our emerging global culture.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune “A revelation . . . Mbue has written a clever morality tale that never preaches but instead teaches us the power of integrity.”—Essence
From the Hardcover edition.
BEHOLD THE DREAMERS by Imbolo Mbue
- What’s it about? Behold the Dreamers is one of the “big buzz” books of 2016. Author Imbolo Mbue is a native of Cameroon. Her experiences as an unemployed American immigrant during the Great Recession inform her debut novel.
In 2007, after several years in New York City, Jende Jonga obtains a work permit and is trying to get his green card. With those papers, he lands a legitimate job, earning $35,000 a year as a chauffeur. His wife Neni and son Niome have finally come from Cameroon, and Neni is pursuing a pharmacy degree on a student visa. The Jongas are working hard to stay in America and achieve their dreams.
Jende’s new employer, Clark Edwards, is a senior investment banker at Lehman Brothers. Through the next year, the fortunes of the Jonga and Edwards families become increasingly intertwined…literally. Then the Great Recession changes everything, and dreams begin to fall apart.
After actions that helped cause the crash, Lehman becomes its first major casualty and Clark’s job goes with it. Jende’s job becomes a casualty of the anxieties of Clark’s wife Cindy. The loss of income and arrival of a second child stall Neni’s educational momentum. Meanwhile, questionable legal advice and the unknowable whims of the legal system threaten Jende’s pursuit of his green card.
- Why did I read it? Behold the Dreamers presents a story that may be familiar in outline, but unique in its specifics. Pieces like Literary Hub‘s asking “Has Imbolo Mbue Written the Great American Novel?” fueled the buzz and piqued my interest. And in a year when immigrants and their role in modern American society have been a huge part of the public conversation, the novel is timely and topical.
Bullet Point Book Reactions
- What worked for me? A piece by Tope Folarin at the Los Angeles Review of Books discussed Behold the Dreamers as “accessible African fiction:”
“Mbue does an admirable job of developing characters whose lives seem so heartbreakingly real that the pages of this book often seem like something of a confinement. When you close the book, you will hear their pain. You might feel them calling for you. And anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will recognize the contours of Neni’s and Jende’s relationship. Mbue also writes dialogue quite well.
The article’s title is “Against Accessibility,” so I’m inferring that characterizing Behold the Dreamers as “accessible” isn’t exactly complimentary. However, I agree that it is very accessible. The characters are drawn well and their relationships are convincing. Some of the plot turns feel a little contrived, but Mbue knows exactly where this story needs to go, and she gets it there. The Jengas’ journey emotionally absorbed me. This novel made me laugh, made me catch my breath, and broke my heart over and over.
- What didn’t I like? I thoughtBehold the Dreamers would be the dual, intertwined stories of the Jonga and Edwards families based. I was a bit frustrated by the lack of depth in Clark and Cindy Edwards until I realized it’s really not a dual narrative. This is the story of Jende and Neni. Mbue portrays the Edwardses through the Jongas’ eyes; they are unequal in status, so the Jongas’ perspective is reasonably limited. Once I adjusted my expectations, that was no longer a problem.
- Recommended? Yes, and highly! Behold the Dreamers is moving, engrossing , and enlightening fiction. Prentice Onayemi’s narration distinctly defined the many characters and I thoroughly enjoyed reading in audio.
He’d never been asked to wear a suit to an interview before. Never been told to bring along a copy of his resume. He hadn’t even owned a resume until the previous week when he’d gone to the library at Thirty-Fourth and Madison and a volunteer career counselor had written one for him, detailed his work history to suggest he was a man of grand accomplishments: farmer responsible for tilling land and growing healthy crops; street cleaner responsible for making sure the town of Limbe looked beautiful and pristine; dishwasher in Manhattan restaurant, in charge of ensuring that patrons ate from clean and germ-free plates; livery cabdriver in the Bronx, responsible for taking passengers safely from place to place.
He’d never had to worry about whether his experience would be appropriate, whether his English would be perfect, whether he would succeed in coming across as intelligent enough. But today, dressed in the green double-breasted pinstripe suit he’d worn the day he entered America, his ability to impress a man he’d never met was all he could think about.