‘Behold the Dreamers’ by Imbolo Mbue – eARC Book Review

Blurb

A powerful and timely story of marriage, class, race and the pursuit of the American Dream. Behold the Dreamers is a dazzling debut novel about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and of what we’re prepared to sacrifice to hold on to each of them.

‘We all do what we gotta do to become American, abi?’

New York, 2007: a city of dreamers and strivers, where the newly-arrived and the long-established jostle alike for a place on the ladder of success. And Jende Jonga, who has come from Cameroon, has just set his foot on the first rung.

Clark Edwards is a senior partner at Lehman Brothers bank. In need of a discrete and reliable chauffeur, he is too preoccupied to closely check the paperwork of his latest employee.

Jende’s new job draws him, his wife Neni and their young son into the privileged orbit of the city’s financial elite. And when Clark’s wife Cindy offers Neni work and takes her into her confidence, the couple begin to believe that the land of opportunity might finally be opening up for them.

But there are troubling cracks in their employers’ facades, and when the deep fault lines running beneath the financial world are exposed, the Edwards’ secrets threaten to spill out into the Jonga’s lives.

Faced with the loss of all they have worked for, each couple must decide how far they will go in pursuit of their dreams – and what they are prepared to sacrifice along the way.

Review

‘Behold the Dreamers’ is a beautiful debut novel that explores the constant gnawing that a soul experiences in the search for something more. And in this case, the striving towards the elusive American Dream.

The book looks at two different angles of the American Dream story in the late 2000s. It primarily focuses on a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, and how they try to make a life for themselves and their son in New York City. The book shows their struggles with searching for employment, immigration rights and how the constant threat of deportation is always looming large over their heads. The fear and anxiety caused by this constant need to look over one’s shoulder and to never feel settled or secure plays almost like a main character in the story. It provides the background to every conversation and decision made, in particular by Jende, and provides a very tense atmosphere throughout the book.

Neither Jende or Neni are perfect characters. They are very richly written and feel quite authentic as the two characters have traits that are both admirable and ones that are less so. At times I absolutely hated Jende for his ideas about what is a husband’s role and what is a wife’s. He is a character that will test you because there are occasions when you will feel so much goodwill towards him, and at other times he will crush you with his seeming coldness or blinkered narrow mindedness. Neni was wonderfully complex too. I loved her almost blinding desire for everything American and how it made her do things that you could have thought were out of her character. America both tested and changed her. The book had a lot to say on the marriage between these two and how this striving for some intangible American Dream slowly twisted them further apart and tested the elasticity of their relationship.

The story also looks at the flip side of America. It looks at wealth and materialism through the eyes of a New York couple who become linked with Jende and Neni. This couple, the Edwards, felt a little less authentic to me. Although they were written well and I enjoyed their storylines, I felt the plots involving them were a little more clichéd and perhaps just lacking a maturity of writing. However, this is a debut novel so I am more than willing to forgive a few flaws because this whole book showed wonderful promise for the future of this writer.

I was thoroughly gripped by the story of Jende and Neni. This was very much a character driven novel and those are always my favourites. It was a very quiet, subtle read and ultimately, I found the book to be a wholly moving reading experience.

Recommended.

3 and a half stars rounded up to four
A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Harper Collins UK: 4th Estate, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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