BEHOLD THE DREAMERS, by Imbolo Mbue. Random House, 382 pp., $28.
With its hint of knowingness and its trace of pity, the title “Behold the Dreamers” begs for a grand sweep of the arm, perhaps from an unmoved god or a cynic. Instead of contempt, however, author Imbolo Mbue lavishes compassion and a keen intelligence on the Jongas of Central African Cameroon and the Edwardses of upscale Manhattan, the “dreamers” of her commanding debut novel.
“Behold the Dreamers” begins in 2007. Jende Jonga sits damp with nerves across the desk from Clark Edwards, a high-ranking executive at the investment bank Lehman Brothers. He is interviewing for a job as Clark’s chauffeur. Jende has overstayed his three-month visa by three years, and his blowhard lawyer is now trying to finagle political asylum for him. Wife Neni and young son Liomi have been in the United States for 18 months. Liomi attends school. Neni does too, taking community college classes in hopes of becoming a pharmacist. The Jongas continue to put down roots, even as Jende’s situation is precarious.
So, of course, is Clark’s. In a little over a year, the storied financial firm will implode. The Great Recession will send MBAs out onto the streets of lower Manhattan with cardboard boxes of belongings in their arms. More vitally, the collapse will rob too many Americans of their savings, their homes, their jobs.
“Behold the Dreamers” persuasively imagines what happens to the Jongas’ aspirations as the edifice of plenty and possibility begins cascading down. In a shrewd move, Mbue weaves her industrious African family’s hopes with the fortunes of a family outwardly living the dream to its fullest, telling the story from Jende and Neni’s perspectives.
For a year, Jende drives Clark, his wife, Cindy, and their sons Vince and Mighty. The Jongas and the Edwardses’ fates becomes more entwined when, in the summer of 2008, Cindy offers Neni, now pregnant, a temporary job minding Mighty and tending to their house in the Hamptons. The Edwards’ marriage is severely strained. Cindy’s grasp on her family is slipping.
When Cindy first confides in Neni, it’s revealing — and infuriating. “No, you don’t understand,” she tells Neni after a terrible night of wine and pills. “Because being poor for you in Africa is fine. Most of you are poor over there. The shame of it, it’s not as bad for you. . . . Over here it’s embarrassing, humiliating, very painful.” It’s not the last time Cindy will confess her woes to Neni. Each time Cindy unburdens herself, Neni and Jende’s future becomes a little more vulnerable.
The eloquent beauty of “Behold the Dreamers” lies in the steady revelation of its characters’ behavior under duress. Mbue makes their most ethically compromised actions understandable. Cindy is prickly and entitled and but also profoundly wounded and desperately maternal. Neni is kind, smart and hardworking, yet shocks us with a clear-eyed, if desperate, gambit.
Mbue originally titled her book “The Longings of Jende Jonga.” And much of the novel’s grace derives from Jende’s decency. So it’s particularly rending (yet believable) when he begins to crack and directs his frustrations at Neni: “The man who had promised to always take care of her was standing above her vomiting a parade of insults, spewing out venom she never thought he had inside him.”
Dreamers have been getting short shrift these days. Instead of visionaries, they are seen as complicit sleepwalkers. Born in Limbe, Cameroon, Mbue — a resident of the United States for more than a decade — doesn’t let her dreamers off the hook. Far from it. Nor does she ridicule their deepest hopes.
It is not the bedeviling American dream that demands our affection and understanding here. Instead, Mbue insists, it the humans who dream it.