"We should have known the end was near … when the sky began to pour acid and the rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead." Spoken by a collective voice of young children, these words open Imbolo Mbue's sweeping new novel, "How Beautiful We Were," and usher us into the near post-apocalyptic setting in Kosawa, a village in an unnamed African country. "We should have spat in their faces," the voice continues on the page. "We should have cursed their mothers and grandmothers … flung pejoratives upon their fathers."
The rage here is directed at Pexton, an American company that drills for oil on Kosawa's land, poisoning well water, among other ecological disasters, and killing children, even those who are not yet birthed.
Readers of Mbue's bestselling debut novel, "Behold the Dreamers," will recognize a familiar theme — American greed and the havoc it can wreak on families. Add the complicity of African leaders and government officials in aiding and abetting this greed, and you have the devastating kind of tragedy that befalls the family members at the center of the novel.
Each of them — Thula, Bongo, Sahel, Yaya, Juba — narrates a decadeslong story of resistance and revolt against Pexton, beginning with a bizarre, vengeful act set in motion by the village madman Kongo.
Heavy on narration and too light on the engaging dialogue that animated Mbue's first novel, the plot begins with a big bang and then unfolds, sometimes disjointedly, at a snail's pace, tragedies piling up. Every attempt by the villagers to get Pexton to take responsibility for its actions and offer some retribution for their suffering is quashed. Children continue to die; men leave to deal with the situation only to disappear; and government soldiers suppress dissent and gun down people.
An unlikely heroine emerges from the rubble: Thula. Barely 10 when we meet her, she grows into an intelligent, determined woman who has her heart set on helping Kosawa win its fight against Pexton. She eventually leaves for her studies in America, where its political activism as well as justice-for-all system inspire her. Can she rest her hopes on American ideals to undo the damage done by its dependency on oil? When she returns, will she save Kosawa from the jaws of death and destruction?
Near the end of the novel, an answer is offered by the collective voice (now of grown men) which re-enters the narrative and surveys the village's prospects. "It was as if an eternal night had settled and the sun would never come up," they say, in apparent defeat.
As with her debut novel in which the American dream is cruelly upended, Mbue rejects the happier ending, replacing it with a biting dose of reality. Here, in her confident, rather unadorned style, she has struck a most somber note on the future. These days, it is a note that feels all too familiar.
Angela Ajayi is a Minneapolis-based critic and writer.
How Beautiful We Were
By: Imbolo Mbue.
Publisher: Random House, 384 pages, $28.
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