In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The sixth in our series is NBCC board member Marion Winik on Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers (Random House).
By now we’ve read quite a number of novels whose action is set in motion by the economic crisis of 2009. Imbolo Mbue’s impressive debut takes a singular place among them, contrasting the fate of two Manhattan families, one at the top of the social heap and the other at the bottom. One-percenters with their prescription drugs and their extramarital affairs; recent immigrants from Africa with their giddy optimism and dangerous misapprehensions.
In the foreground is Jende Jonga, lately of Cameroon, his wife Neni, studying to be a pharmacist, and their young son Liomi. When Jende, who has been working as dishwasher, scores a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a muckety-muck at Lehman Brothers with a troubled wife and similarly-aged son, the fates of the Jongas and the Edwardses become entwined. Except for a nagging immigration problem being handled by a lousy lawyer, things go very well at first. Jende loves dressing up in a suit and driving a Lexus while Clark conducts endless cell-phone conversations and laptop machinations in the back seat. Neni excels in school and becomes pregnant with a child that will be born a U.S. citizen.
Then, during her summer hiatus in the Hamptons, Mrs. Edwards hires Neni to help with child care. One day Neni finds her employer disheveled and crashed out at midday; around this time, Clark starts having Jende take him for one-hour visits to the Chelsea Hotel. Cracks in the Edwards marriage are paralleled by trouble for the Jongas too. Yet the magnitude of the catastrophe makes itself clear only slowly — particularly to immigrant eyes, dazzled by everything from shopping at Pathmark to the presidency of Obama to the freedom of Occupy protesters to demonstrate without being rounded up and thrown into prison. They will learn.
Realistic, tragic, and still remarkably kind to all its characters, this diversely peopled and crisply narrated novel is notable for its blend of dark irony and buoyant good humor. I gave this book to my fifteen-year-old daughter, a member of one of the toughest audiences for a serious book about people totally unlike themselves. She was spellbound by it, though the stark realism of the ending was disappointing to her. She noted that it was “like a book we would read in school,” by which she meant both that it enlightened her on social issues and that it seemed like it could be a classic.
With “Behold the Dreamers,” Mbue joins the lengthening list of first and second-generation African women writers who have recently charmed fiction lovers, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yaa Gyasi, and Helen Oyeyemi.
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