Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.
However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.
When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
NB: There are spoilers in this review.
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue was the second book that I read in February for Black History Month. It primarily looks at the 2008 crash from the eyes of Jende and Neni, two immigrants from Cameroon who are desperate to set up lives in America for their children.
This book is so incredibly timely it almost begs belief. At the centre of the novel is the random and racist nature of the American immigration system. It really goes into the practicalities of immigration – such as the lawyers Jende must rely on in order to stay in the US, and issues with green cards, ICE, and student visas. What really made it come to life as well was the fact that Jende was separated from his wife and child for almost a year, desperately saving up for their flights to America. It really felt like Mbue had experienced the emotional pain that this would cause. A couple times I was close to tears.
(I will note, trigger warnings include alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide, as well as potentially upsetting scenes regarding American immigration.)
What is most interesting, I think, is that in the end Behold the Dreamers is the opposite of most immigration narratives. I think in almost every immigrant narrative I’ve read, the characters have moved from Africa to the US or UK. This occurs before the action of this novel. Rather, we see the characters move back to Cameroon from the US. Is this defeat? Is this the realisation of the fallibility of the American dream? Is this returning home? It isn’t quite clear.
The real strength was the characters. Every single person in this novel is a shade of grey. Those who we initially like slowly turn uglier, and those who we perhaps underestimated display incredible strength. My personal favourite character was Neni, who will do absolutely anything to ensure that she and her children can stay in America. Until the end, she tries to keep her dream of becoming a pharmacist alive, even when every single person around her is telling her to give up. The fact that she does not become a pharmacist in America is merely due to her circumstances not a lack of ability or motivation, and because that, the ending is particularly poignant.
Although there were certain sections that didn’t quite capture my interest, it is important to remember that Behold the Dreamers was Mbue’s debut novel. Keeping that in mind, I am very interested to see what this highly capable author publishes next.