I lost count of how many times I cried in this book. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is a story of immigrants, of perseverance, of loss, and of choices. And it’s brilliant.
Jende Jonga emigrates to the US from Cameroon where he works tirelessly for two years in order to have enough money to send for his wife and son to join him. While Jende files for asylum based on the advice of his lawyer, Neni has a stable student visa, valid for as long as she studies at her school. Thanks to the recommendation of a friend Jende gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, senior executive at Leyman Brothers, and the families become intertwined, their differences both marked and blurred. The novel starts in 2007, and takes us through the recession of 2008, and beyond. Both families are required to make many choices they never wanted to face, or even dreamed of facing. All of the characters commit acts that we, as readers, are not going to agree with, but there are no heroes or villains, just humans who are doing the best they can to provide better lives for their families.
I personally relate to so much in this novel. The American Dream is fallacy, but we all believe that we can come here and make a better lives for ourselves. And some of us do manage to. The others work two or three jobs, and still only manage to scrape by, feeling guilty that we can only send a few dollars back home every month, and haven’t seen our families in years. Some of us dream of going back home because it’s become too tiring, the constant challenges, the fight to survive, the constant barrage of negativity that we face every time this current administration talks about immigrants. Imbolo Mbue does a wonderful job depicting the lives of immigrants, most likely because she is one herself and has been through a lot of the good and bad sides. She also does an amazing, amazing job describing NYC through the eyes of an immigrant - it’s where both my partner and emigrated to (separately from different countries), and where we both spent upwards of a decade before moving away. We love the city as much as Neni does in the novel and it warmed my heart to read her descriptions. (I also lived close to the area in Harlem described by the author when I first moved to NYC).
If you are not an immigrant you may have a little difficulty understanding certain choices Jende makes, or why he lets certain things pass rather than standing his ground. I get it. I totally got it.
All in all I love Behold the Dreamers. It’s a brilliant first novel. I can’t wait to see what Imbolo Mbue has in store for us in the future!