In today’s tense political climate, with immigration in the news almost daily, it is especially welcome to discover Behold the Dreamers, the clear-eyed, thought-provoking debut novel by Imbolo Mbue. No matter your politics, this beautiful novel about an African family starting a new life in a new land offers tremendous insight into people who still come to our shores in search of the American dream.
In the fall of 2007, Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, can hardly believe his luck when he gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. With this opportunity, Jende can better provide for his wife, Neni, and their growing family. When Clark’s fragile wife, Cindy, offers Neni temporary work at their summer house in the Hamptons, the Jongas feel that finally, everything is going their way. The Jongas begin to make plans for their future, applying for permanent residency and saving for their own home in Yonkers and pharmaceutical college for Neni.
But not even a year later, the housing bubble bursts and Lehman Brothers collapses. The Edwards marriage unravels further. Jende spends more and more of his time driving Clark to after-hours “assignations” in nearby hotels. Before long, the pressure of keeping secrets for Clark and Cindy threatens not only the Jongas’ marriage but their dreams of a future in a country they still can’t legally call home.
Mbue herself came to the United States from Limbe, Cameroon, the same town that the Jongas hail from. Behold the Dreamers is her first foray into fiction, which shows in the occasionally choppy plot, as well as the depiction of a wealthy Manhattan couple with problems straight from central casting. But Mbue’s perceptive exploration of the plight of African immigrants, especially in the character of Neni, is fresh and vivid. The book’s unexpected ending provides a welcome dose of realism, making this an utterly unique novel about immigration, race and class—and an important one, as well.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Imbolo Mbue.