In his review of Behold the Dreamers for the Washington Post, Ron Charles, the newspaper’s fiction editor, recommended that one presidential candidate (guess who?) read Imbolo Mbue’s touching novel about a recently migrated Cameroonian family in New York. At the time, said candidate was bashing immigrants at every pit stop on the electoral journey and was (is?) unlikely to read anything outside the Twitterverse. However, it’s not too late — we can always hope — because despite his continued disdain for immigrants, Mr Trump may just be surprised by how the novel is devoid of any preachiness.
This is an account of immigrants who risk life and limb to be in the United States at a time of much hope — when Barack Obama is about to be sworn in as the first black president — and tells an oft-neglected story about the impact the 2008 financial crash had on everybody. To reduce Behold the Dreamers to being a story just about immigrants would thus be unfair.
Mbue’s novel opens in a swank office in New York City’s financial district where Jende Jonga is trying desperately not to break out in a sweat. He’s waiting to meet Clark Edwards, the most important person at the financial services firm Lehman Brothers, who’s interviewing Jende for the position of his driver. Immediately one is sucked into the story: as nervous as Jende, rooting for him without knowing why he’s lied on his resume about his past jobs; all too familiar with the exaggerations one makes on CVs. Jende is likable even if his love for all things American borders on the irritable, especially when it seems apparent to all that the American system is broke and causing half his troubles. His wife Neni is reminded at one point that life is as unfair in America as it was back home.
Despite obvious differences, the lives of those who have made it in the world and those who want to make it, are not all that dissimilar
Jende is so desperate for this driver’s position that he and Neni have practiced for the interview for days, ironing out any loose ends and imagining scenarios should he be asked about his legal status. He needs to make more than ends meet as his cab driver job isn’t cutting it anymore. The couple lives in Harlem with their six-year-old son Liomi, who is a good student. Meanwhile Neni is employed as a healthcare worker while pursuing her studies in pharmaceutical science. She is on a student visa and Jende is waiting for his asylum application to go through. He does not technically qualify for asylum, but he hopes his lawyer will convince the authorities that his life was in danger in his home country. He also supports his family back home. The couple may be constantly tired and poor, but they do not want to return.
So far, so much an immigrant’s story.
Jende does get the job, and over time slowly develops a relationship of sorts with Mr Edwards. He tells his boss about the troubles back in Cameroon and why he loves America, about his dreams of becoming rich and Mr Edwards begins to trust him with his own secrets. Jende gets to know Mr Edwards’s two sons: the teenager determined to pursue his own path instead of the one set by his father, and a young elementary school boy who is sweet and starved for parental attention. He also gets to know Cindy, Mr Edwards’s wife. She typifies the image of a bored, elite, rich New York spouse of a stockbroker: when discussing the financial crisis with a friend, she says how frightening the scenario is because she’s heard people talk about selling their vacation homes.
“Everyone wants to come to America, sir. ... Someone like me, what can I ever become in a country like Cameroon? I came from nothing. No name. No money, my father is a poor man. Cameroon has nothing.” — Excerpt from the book
Neni gets a temporary job cleaning the Edwards’s vacation home and it is here that she gets to know Cindy. The two women couldn’t be further apart, but as the story unfolds we learn more about their complexities, their dreams and disappointments, and each woman transforms because of circumstance, happenings beyond their control. At a crucial moment near the end, they confront one another and act unlike themselves, perhaps because they are no longer the women we first met.
The same is somewhat true of Jende and Mr Edwards, especially after the Lehman bankruptcy.
Undoubtedly the story is about class divides in the US and not just because of the fallout from the bankruptcy; the story also reflects on themes such as children growing up, moving on and relationships crumbling — and here the Jongas’ and the Edwards’s lives are strangely parallel. They may not fear the same thing, but they both stand to lose privileges they’ve become accustomed to. It is about both families coming to terms with the hand they’ve been dealt. They are all dreamers, in spite of the disappointments or heartache.
In announcing her decision to make Behold the Dreamers her book club choice in June, Oprah Winfrey said: “It’s a book to read right now. It’s got everything that’s grabbing the headlines in America right now. It’s about race and class, the economy, culture, immigration and the danger of the ‘us versus them’ mentality.”
That all of this remains relevant nearly a decade after the period it was set in is tragic, but it doesn’t make it less of a beautifully told story.
The reviewer is a graduate student of journalism at Northwestern University, US
Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2017
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