Colonialism hasn’t gone anywhere, it’s only changed its stripes. The tentacles of the Western quest for domination are still finding new ways to dig into the earth and pillage for profit. Few have rendered the generational effects of this so arrestingly as Imbolo Mbue in her second novel, “How Beautiful We Were” (Random House, 384 pp., ★★½ out of four). This one’s going to grab you.
After the acclaim for her first, best-selling novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” no one should be surprised that Mbue’s exquisite and exacting way with words is also on display in the story of Kosawa, a fictional African village dealing with the toxic ramifications of an American oil company’s razing of the land. It may not be a real place, but the portrait it paints is decidedly real and will undoubtedly feel familiar to people who live in places taken advantage of by Western interests.
“How Beautiful We Were,” by Imbolo Mbue. (Photo: Random House)
Though we meet the villagers at one point in time, this is a sweeping story told over generations and through the voices of the many. There is a main heroine, a girl named Thula, but this story belongs to Kosawa and all its people.
This is where the novel struggles most. Many of the jumps through time and perspective are not always clear, at times making the novel a challenge to follow. Execution of a story this vast and interwoven is no easy feat. Mbue struggles to keep the pace and clarity in several moments throughout the novel, which can feel frustrating given the strength of her writing.
Because, oh, what a stunningly beautiful writer Mbue is, and how lucky we are to have her stories in the world. Her voice is singular and confident, focused and downright arresting at times. Audible gasps and chest-clenching happen while reading her work. You will read and re-read lines, utterly captivated and bowled over by their brilliance and beauty. There’s just a tightness missing in the story to make it really soar the way in which Mbue is clearly capable of giving us. The people and village of Kosawa are so gloriously alive in this story — if only it were a bit more focused, it would sing at a perfect pitch.
Mbue’s work is necessary reading, however. She does not shy away from the true horrors, across the spectrum, that American capitalism and the oil industry render upon those caught in the crosshairs. Children are dying, farmlands are arid, water is toxic, and all of it is left un-remedied by the people financially benefiting.
Imbolo Mbue: “Behold the Dreamers,” Mbue’s debut novel about immigrants Jende Jonga and his wife Neni, who get jobs working for a financier and his wife, was an Oprah Winfrey book club pick and a USA TODAY bestseller. (Photo: Kiriko Sano)
Of course, there is also a dictator involved, greasing the proverbial wheels of the Pexton oil company’s endeavors, but its dressing down of the American company is, perhaps, the thing that will get you thinking the most. Mbue is relentlessly passionate on the page, buoying the read even at its most sluggish. It’s a book you will be hard-pressed to put down, so caught up in the vivid world Mbue has created.
In the end, “How Beautiful We Were” is an unforgettable read from an author whose work will surely grab at us for decades to come. Her vision, creativity and way with words allow the reader a bit of grace for the parts that may frustrate, for Thula and Kosawa’s journeys will kick you in the throat and hold you there to feel the pain that comes with persevering — or not.
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