The past decade has seen an exquisite flowering of English-language fiction by African women, among them Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi and Yaa Gyasi, covering an impressive narrative range, from stirring diaspora stories to playful formal experimentation.
In “Behold the Dreamers,” her lush, assured debut, Imbolo Mbue joins their ranks, spinning the tale of an immigrant Cameroonian family and their white American patrons, all gripped by internal strife and caught in the vortex of New York’s 2008 financial crisis.
Jende Jonga lives in a cramped Harlem apartment with his wife, Nemi, and their young son, bouncing among odd jobs and counting each dollar as Nemi puts herself through college. Although Jende’s legal status is in jeopardy, their future seems brighter when he’s hired as personal chauffeur to Clark Edwards, an overworked executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende also shuttles Clark’s overwrought wife, Cindy, to social engagements in Manhattan and drives their son to school functions.
With a presidential election looming, Clark begins to suspect (rightly) that Lehman is headed for a crash that could trigger a worldwide recession; he relieves the stress with trysts at the Chelsea Hotel, which Jende soon discovers. Cindy withdraws to the couple’s Hamptons estate, bringing Nemi with her as a housekeeper and nanny; she ultimately confides her despair at her family’s slow decay. As the Jongas hide the secrets of their employers, their own marriage frays, complicated by Nemi’s pregnancy and the dawning realization that their adopted country bars them from the opportunities they seek.
Mbue’s fluent prose captures the aspirations and flaws of both couples, trapped on opposing sides of the darkening American dream, each character staring into a chasm below. The Edwardses’ lives shatter because of their immense privilege, insiders wanting out; Jende and Nemi struggle to reach for better prospects, outsiders wanting in.
“Behold the Dreamers” reveals Mbue as a deft, often lyrical observer, as in this scene with Jende and Nemi enjoying an evening out in Columbus Circle:
“They sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West. The spring air was crisper than [Nemi] would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway. … It wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her.”
The novel occasionally loses momentum as it moves from one domestic squabble to another, bleeding out drama. In this respect, “Behold the Dreamers” might have worked better as a novella or short story. But Mbue’s meticulous storytelling announces a writer in command of her gifts, plumbing the desires and disappointments of our emerging global culture.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.
Behold the Dreamers
By: Imbolo Mbue.
Publisher: Random House, 382 pages, $28.