Friday, November 25, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers has appeared on Buzzfeed's list of "Incredible New Books You Need to Read This Summer." Exploring the lives of a Cameroonian couple that immigrated to the US, the book looks at the pitfalls of the so-called American dream against a New York City backdrop.

The Situation: It is 2008 and Jende and Neni Jonga live in a tiny apartment in Harlem with their young son Liomi. After leaving Limbe, their hometown in Cameroon, Jende lived in New York City for years, working hard and saving up enough money so that his wife and child could join him. Now they live a decent, if somewhat cramped and tenuous existence as Neni attends school with dreams of becoming a pharmacist, and Jende just landed a job as a driver for an extremely powerful and wealthy Wall Street executive. While working and saving up money is certainly a big part of Jende and Neni's plan for carving out a life in the US, there is also the matter of Jende's expired visa and the possibility that he may be deported. Hard-earned money must be spent on immigration lawyers, applications, and fees. And then there is the long wait that may only result in a denial. But currently, both Jende and Neni have friends in New York and decent jobs. And of course, they have each other.

The Problem: While Jende may have landed a great job as a driver for Clark Edwards and his family, he doesn't anticipate becoming an unwilling observer, and sometimes participant, in the issues surrounding the wealthy man's work and family. As the recession hits, Clark's firm is hit hard, and while the demands of his job were already putting a strain on his marriage, the financial crisis threatens to push everything over the edge, and the formerly financially comfortable Edwards family begins to panic about how their lives will change. Meanwhile, Jende must oscillate between loyalty to his employer, providing for his family, and securing the ultimate dream of American citizenship, all in a time when it looks like he could loose any of those things at almost any moment. The strain of trying to achieve the American dream may prove to be too much for both families.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in New York City in 2008, just as the US economy is taking its downturn. Jende Jonga is an immigrant from Cameroon who is currently staying in the US beyond the original expiration date of his visa. The job he lands driving for Clark Edwards is by far the best paying job he has ever had, but it makes him privy to certain details about Clark's work and family life. It's two families on extreme opposite ends of the socio-economic scale, and yet they both have struggles in their marriage, their careers, and ultimately want to carve out a nice life for their children. Granted, Jende's worry about having enough money to buy food is incredibly different from Cindy's, Clark's wife, of having to possibly let go of the maids or nanny. And while the Edwards have plenty of money, that does not mean they are immune to marital issues, or problems with their children. Both families must reevaluate what they are willing to do and sacrifice in order to achieve their version of the American dream. And instead of looking at a white family and a black family, the reader gets to look at a white family and a Cameroonian family, which is entirely different, as Cameroonian families have different rules as far as how wives behave towards their husbands, and obligations to family still living back home.

My Verdict: On Goodreads this book was described as "compulsively readable," and I understand exactly what they mean. While there isn't much suspense or action, I had to keep reading just to know how everything was going to turn out. As if Jende and Neni's story wasn't enough, the drama that circles around the Edwards family is also captivating, giving the reader two families of fully developed characters to become invested in. There were moments where I felt the story dragged a little bit, but even then there was dialogue to follow, or careful descriptions to consider or take note of. I am always interested in reading the stories of different immigrant groups as they do their best to make a life for themselves in the US, and Mbue's novel is another example of how tough living in the US can be if you weren't born here, and sometimes even if you were.

Favorite Moment: When Neni marvels at the food that is prepared and served at gatherings at the Edwards summer home.

Favorite Character: Jende's cousin Winston is a Cameroonian success story. He also immigrated to the US, and now has a great job and is able to assist Jende in his current quest for a green card. 

Recommended Reading: I recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Instead of focusing on immigrants from Africa in modern day America, Gyasi's book follows the history of a Ghanaian family from pre-slavery days to present day.     

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