Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Because I’m a sucker for the new and shiny books, I ended up placing a lot of holds at my library at the same time—and getting them all at once. And with books that are brand new, you get less time to read them. And when Jonathan Safran Foer’s enormous new book must get read in time for a book signing, you panic. So that’s what happened in the month of September. We’ll not discuss the fact that it’s now November, and my reading has precipitously dropped off this semester (December edit: LOL JK, the procrastination only got WORSE). I did really like this debut novel, and while it narrowly misses the cut for absolute favorites of the year, it deserves consideration to be included in the conversation.
Behold the Dreamers is Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, and it is both ambitious and original in the same breath. It focuses on the American Dream from the immigrant experience, after 9/11. Jende and Neni are Cameroonian immigrants to the US, escaping their years of separation and class stratification that forbade them to marry in Cameroon. They live in New York with their son and try to eke out a living. Jende gets a job chauffeuring for a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, Clark Edwards, and Neni is trying to pass her classes at the community college, work a full-time job, and do odd jobs for Clark’s wife Cindy. As Jende and Neni become entangled in the Edwards’ lives, their own marriage and investment in the Dream becomes fragile. Did I mention that it’s the years 2007-2008? Oh, yeah. You know how this story ends.
This is an incisive look at the 2008 recession, because it’s told from a new perspective, one untainted by white identity politics and class status. Jende’s blind faith that Barack Obama, a black man, will fix the country, mirrors that of my peers when we went to the polls and voted back in 2008. We surely had no idea how bad the recession had gotten or how low we still had to go. That’s Mbue’s strength: she brings you back to a time you knew well and she makes it new and unfamiliar. The one criticism that I have is that towards the end, there is an increased focus on camp or melodrama that cheapened the denouement of the book a little bit. That said, very much worth the read. I highly recommend it if you like reading literary fiction dealing with immigration, marriage, class, work, or discussion of the American Dream. 4.5 stars.