***This review contains spoilers***
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is a story about the Jongas, an immigrant family from Cameroon who is living in Harlem and working hard to make a better lives for themselves. The story begins in the fall of 2007 where Jende cannot contain his excitement when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a big time executive at Lehman Brothers. However, when the financial world is shaken by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, both the Jongas and the Edwards’ are left reeling. Ultimately the Jonga’s are faced with a nearly impossible choice: remain in the United States or give up their dreams of a New York life and return to Cameroon.
As simplistic as it may sound, the main reason I enjoyed this book was because it was fundamentally about people. While many people have strong opinions about both immigrants and people who work on Wall Street, Mbue beautifully captured the people under those labels. She allowed the reader to see that despite the difference of circumstances between the Edwards’ and the Jongas, their emotional response to the hardships both families experienced as a result of the recession were quite similar. Mbue also provides a sobering perspective on the US immigration system. Despite their valiant efforts to provide a better life for themselves and their children, Jende and Neni’s fate is left completely in the hands of the US government. Mbue expertly brings this powerlessness and desperation to the forefront of the story which makes the novel such a powerful read.
The only issue I had with this book was the sudden change in Jende and Neni after Jende loses his chauffeur job. While I anticipated all the characters to have a visceral reaction to the 2008 recession, part of me feel as though Jende and Neni’s reactions might have gone a bit too far. I was quite confused how Jende went from a man who couldn’t bring himself to keep any of the money that Mrs. Edwards gave him to a person that easily concocted stories to cover up Mr. Edwards’ infidelities and beat his wife who did nothing but support and love him unconditionally. Furthermore, in terms of Neni, I was shocked, and frankly appalled by her decision to take advantage of a deeply troubled woman who often went out of her way to help her. While I respect the cultural differences that may have come into play and empathize with the amount of pressure they were under, the sudden change in Jende and Neni’s characters was a really tough pill for me to swallow.
Ultimately, Behold the Dreamers is a beautifully written and realistically paced story about immigration, but more importantly, people in general. Mbue easily leaves the reader pondering important takeaway messages about about the state of our immigration system, among many other issues. Although the change in Jende and Neni was a bit of a challenge for me to get past, I still really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it.
3.5 stars out of 5