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.
A bit about Imbolo Mbue
As this is a review and not a feature, its not customary (according to my own customs 😅) to give some background about the author but I thought it necessary here because it would give some context as to why the author writes from a Cameroonian perspective – and just so that you know that she’s not just pulling at strings!
Imbolo Mbue was born in Limbe, Cameroon and was sponsored by family to pursue higher education studies In America (Wikipedia).
After completing a Business administration from Rutgers University and then Columbia University for an M. A (Moving Fictions). She worked in the corporate sector but lost her job when the financial crises hit. Mbue found that getting a new job was not going well for her. She went for a walk one day and seeing all the chauffeurs around inspired her to write a story about a chauffeur and his employer during the financial crisis (Kirkus Reviews).
Her second novel which was published last year, How Beautiful We Were, was in fact written before Behold the Dreamers (published in 2016). She stopped working on this to start writing her debut novel. The story of How Beautiful We Were sounds pretty intriguing so I’m super keen to get my hands on that book.
Summary of the Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. bankruptcy
After filing for bankruptcy, Barclays and Nomura Holdings gained most of Lehman’s investment banking and trading operations. In addition, Barclays took up Lehman’s New York headquarters building. The end of Lehman was a result of being overwhelmed by mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that were mostly backed with subprime loans and many of these defaulted (CFI).
If you feel like you don’t really understand all the technicalities of mortgages etc. – don’t worry because you’re not alone! 😁 – what is important is to know in the context of the novel is that they were a huge investment bank that went bankrupt and was a key figure in the Financial Crises of 2007 – 2008.
Now for the book review…
The plot revolves around two families – the Edwards family, a wealthy american family and the Jonga family, the immigrants from Cameroon. The narrative alternates from Jende’s perspective and that of his wife, Neni. Even though the novel is told from the perspective of the immigrant family, it is not only their side that one comes to understand. The story actually discloses the differences and similarities between the two families when faced with various adversities (BookBrowse).
There are a few themes that are derived in the novel but one in particular stands out to me and that is of the ‘American Dream’. I am drawn to the experience of the immigrant written from Chimamanda Adichie’s Nigerian perspective versus that of Mbue’s Cameroonian perspective.
The story makes me think more deeply about this notion of the American Dream. I am not naïve to the hardships and even brutality endured in other African countries and feel that it is a blessing from God that I am South African even though there are many things wrong with our government etc. it doesn’t make me anxious enough to leave the country asap – I’m sure there are others who feel differently though.
The life Jende had back home in Cameroon compels me to understand the reason he seeks the American Dream. I can’t help but support him and Neni as they seek a better life for themselves and their kids. This just speaks to the strength of Mbue’s writing at creating a setting for the reader to understand the stance they have on America.
Another theme is that of class. The difference in the financial states of the Jonga’s and Edwards’ household are very evident throughout the novel. What gripped me was the way in which each individual handled money or lack thereof.
The Jonga’s concerned themselves with the security money would bring, with regards to their permanent residence in America. I also found it particularly interesting that their families in Cameroon assume that they have money to send back home at any given moment for school fees, funerals etc. just because they are living in America now. When in reality the reader knows that they are struggling with the cost of living in America. When reading, the Jonga’s came across as a family who were content with having just enough money to get by and save the excess for the inevitable – Jende’s immigrant court case.
Mbue highlights the everyday hardships that the family faces as immigrants, the pressures associated with getting their ‘papier’ (greencard) and working towards a better future.
When looking at Clark and Cindy Edwards, they are very generous towards Jende and Neni, yet I still got the impression from Cindy especially, that she was holding back – and this was in order to keep up the standard of living brought about by wealth to friends and acquaintances in her societal circle.
Mid reading and towards the end of the book, I began to form different opinions about Clark and Cindy. Mbue shows a softer more vulnerable side to their characters, allowing me to look into their past and piece together why they would act a certain way or even say the things they do.
The theme of family is also looked at in Behold the Dreamers. The Jonga family remain close to their family in Cameroon (Moving Fictions), whereas Cindy Edwards is distant from her mom and the reader learns why this relationship is strained. Cindy does however place emphasis on the importance of family – “family” in terms of herself, Clark, Vince and Mighty.
Towards the end of the story Cindy starts to fall apart emotionally as her family falls apart (Moving Fictions), in light of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy pressure on Clark and other factors that negatively affect the family.
According to This is Africa, Mbue’s novel explores various themes and therefore can appeal to different audiences, a something for everyone feel. I find this to be true as there are themes I haven’t discussed here. Not for lack of interest though! Only because it warrants more probing and I’m afraid of revealing the complete story 🤐.
I would recommend this book to anyone. It’s an easy read that is interesting on so many topics.
4.5 stars because I think that this is a well written story that is about so much more than pursuing the American Dream.
|Works Cited List|
|“Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (Goodreads Author)”. Goodreads. Goodreads, Inc., 20 July 2021. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35259724-behold-the-dreamers|
|“Imbolo Mbue”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2 May 2021 Published. 20 July 2021 Accessed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imbolo_Mbue|
|IMBOLO MBUE. 26 July 2021 Accessed. https://www.imbolombue.com/about|
|Beer, Tom. “In a New Novel, Imbolo Mbue Fights the Power”. Kirkus Reviews, 9 March 2021 Published. 26 July 2021 Accessed. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/imbolo-mbue-how-beautiful-we-were-interview/|
|Gualtieri, Sydney and Quigley, John. “Behold the Dreamers’”. Moving Fictions, Exploring Migration in Modern Literature. 26 July 2021 Accessed. https://sites.udel.edu/movingfictions/the-books/behold-the-dreamers/imbolo-mbue/|
|“Lehman Brothers, The rise and fall of the US investment bank”. CFI, CFI Education Inc. 26 July 2021 Accessed. https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/knowledge/finance/lehman-brothers/|
|Kovaks, Kim. “Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue”. BookBrowse. 28 July 2021 Accessed. https://www.bookbrowse.com/reviews/index.cfm/book_number/3447/behold-the-dreamers#genres_themes|
|Mwesigire, Bwesigye bwa. “Something for everyone in Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers”. This is africa, This is africa & RNW. 7 December 2016 Published. 30 July 2021 Accessed. https://thisisafrica.me/arts-and-culture/something-everyone-imbolo-mbues-behold-dreamers/|