How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue – eARC Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

“We should have known the end was near.”

So begins Imbolo Mbue’s powerful second novel, How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company.

Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean-up and financial reparations to the villagers are made—and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. Their struggle would last for decades and come at a steep price.

Told through the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary, How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold onto its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.

My Review

I was incredibly impressed by Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel Behold the Dreamers when I read it in 2017 and knew that this was an author whose work I would want to return to in the future.

In this second novel from Mbue we are given the story of a fictional African village named Kosawa where Pexton, an American Oil company, has come in to exploit the land… at first this company promised success and prosperity to the village… and of course paid the government well… but it soon emerged that all they brought were death and destruction due to reckless practices that dangerously polluted the water and the land.

The book uses a number of different points of view to tell the story of this small village’s attempts to reclaim their ancestral lands from Pexton and their government, and to get compensation so they could clean their water supply to help heal their sick and dying children.

It mostly uses the story of one child of the village, Thula, to show the impacts of what the American oil company and the government have done to the people of Kosawa. It follows her from childhood through to adulthood. Thula who is different. Thula who demands more from life. Thula who marches to her own drumbeat. Thula who wants education. Thula who wants to become a revolutionary and a peacemaker. Thula who wants restitution for her people.

The book uses her as a focal point but uses the eyes of her mother, brother, and village age mates among others to tell this compelling story.

But oh…. I’m so mad at this book.

Absolutely mad.

Because it’s beautiful. There are so many sentences and paragraphs that I highlighted on my book. So many truths about life and death, about family and loyalty, about justice and retribution… This novel at times floored me with its devastating honesty. With its incredible ability to truly get into the nitty gritty between corporate multinationals and innocent bystanders, in this case the village…

But it annoyed me because this book flatters to deceive. All that brilliance was tarnished by a meandering plot. A plot that technically gave a very complete idea of village life over the years but ultimately it was done at the expense of the novel’s direction and pace. Because it was too much of a slow read. It frequently dragged and felt clunky to read.

And then there was an issue with how the narrative unfolded I felt. The timeline felt disjointed. At times the book suddenly told of unexpected and harrowing events and I felt lost. I was confused as to whether I’d somehow forgotten something or if I’d skipped pages… but then the narrative backtracked to explain those events but it was too late. I felt the impact and gravitas of such had been eroded, and instead ad a reader I was left frustrated by the lack of consistency with the direction of the storytelling.

But on the other hand this story haunted me. It haunted me when it showed how little life is cared for in the pursuit of financial reward. It haunted me when it showed how demands for restitution turn to hopeless revenge …

There’s so much good in this novel.

The story is sadly all too easy to believe. The sorrows and horrors that are inflicted upon the people of Kosawa all too realistic…

A brave and inspiring novel that regrettably isn’t executed quite as brilliantly as it could be, but is still very much worth a read. Definitely recommend it to book groups as it would make a for interesting and thought provoking discussion.

3.5 stars.

*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*

Publishing 11th March 2021, Canongate

3 thoughts on “How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue – eARC Book Review

  1. I still have Mbue’s debut sitting on my unread shelf but I’ve heard really good things about it. The premise of this book sounds really interesting but based on your review about how its written, I’m not sure if it’s one that I’d eventually pick up! It’s a pity though since it seems that it touches on a lot of important and impactful topics! Great review though 🙂


  2. This definitely sounds like an interesting reading experience. I’m sad to hear it didn’t quite live up to the potential. The concept sounds pretty intriguing though, and I like how you mentioned it would be a good choice for a book group because of the discussions it could inspire.


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