Monday, November 20, 2017

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

This was a powerful novel, and if not for folks around me talking about it, I probably would have passed it by.  However, fate intervened, and I'm happy to have spent the time reading about Jende and Neni Jonga's experience as immigrants in America.  There is so much to talk about, it is definitely a novel you'll want to discuss with friends. 

Jende is a native of Cameroon, and is living in New York City with his wife Neni and their young son, Liomi.  Jende had arrived in New York City alone, and spent a few years working hard, scraping up enough money to marry Neni and bring her to America.  His dream was to leave Cameroon, where opportunities to succeed were slim to none.  Jende is extremely hard working, of noble character, and polite to a fault.  He's also living in the U.S. without a green card, and an expired visa.  

Jende's chance to make a huge leap in providing for his family comes when he's offered a job as the chauffeur to Clark Edwards, an executive with Lehman Brothers.  It's 2007; Barak Obama is running for President, and the financial crisis that rocks Wall Street is looming. Neni attends school, with the dream to be a pharmacist.  Jende and Neni are two hard working people who save every penny they can, live very modestly on very little, and dream of providing a future for their son that wouldn't be possible in Limbe, their hometown.  America is their dream, if only Jende could receive a green card.  

Jende's employment with the Edwards family extends to Clark's wife Cindy and their sons, Vince and Mighty.  As he chauffeurs them around New York City, he learns that money cannot buy happiness.  Cindy is a closet alcoholic, deeply unhappy with life, and haunted by a terrible childhood.  Clark is desperately working to keep Lehman Brothers from falling apart; Vince loathes everything about America and longs to run away to India.  Mighty, Clark and Cindy's young son, is watching everything he knows crumble and fall apart. 

Jende's life is also hanging in the balance; he has an upcoming court date with Immigration, and chances are good he may be deported. What will he do if this happens?  How will it change his life, and that of his family, if he's forced to return to Cameroon, a place that is at once home, but also a place of failed opportunities?  Jende's anxiety and desperate hope that he will stay in America is palpable throughout the novel, and I kept getting anxious every time his looming immigration court date was mentioned.  As the Edwards' life implodes with the Lehman Brothers scandal, Jende's life is also affected in ways that are startling and for me, unexpected.  Neni's anger at the prospect of leaving America is so powerful; as a woman I could understand her desire to make a better life for herself;  and her willingness to work very hard to do so. Neni's fierceness in protecting her family is a welcome part of her character development.  For most of the novel, she's quiet, hard working, and supports Jende in everything he does. But as their life takes a sudden turn, she finally opens up and demands to be heard, not only by Jende, but by everyone in her life. 

One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the idea of home and where we come from.  How it can be both the most wonderful place, and the one place we never want to return to because we see it as a sense of failure and giving up.  We see it in both Jende and Neni, and the Edwards family.  Success can be measured in so many ways, and it changes depending on where we are in life.  But it doesn't matter if you're black, white, an immigrant, or a citizen. 

This book was very good, and I'm hopeful Imbolo Mbue writes more.  This was an extraordinary first novel.  Random House has helpfully provided reading group discussion questions, as well as an interview with Imbolo Mbue in the latest paperback edition of the book.  Both sections are worth reading.  A timely novel that will generate many discussions on immigration policy, and the plight of immigrants not only in America, but throughout the world. 

Rating:  6/6 for a novel that explores immigration, race, dreams, family,  and the meaning of success. 

Available in paperback, audio, and ebook.

1 comment :

  1. I loved this one too and my reading group had a great discussion.
    Happy Thanksgiving Sue!