By Karan Madhok
397 pp. Random House. $17
Over a million immigrants a year are granted permanent residence in the United States. They leave behind their families, their homes, their favorite foods, their language, culture, and often, the privilege of being a majority of their national population. They make these sacrifices for that vague international notion of the “American Dream.” It’s a “dream,” because it’s an unlikely but cherished ambition to get into America. It’s a “dream,” because to many immigrants, America is a promise where every man and woman—no matter their background—has the potential to provide a better life to their children.
Many do turn this dream into a reality. But to many more, the promise of America can be as elusive and temporary as a dream itself. In her debut novel Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue presents us with a captivating tale of the immigrant experience.
Behold the Dreamers follows the lives of young Cameroonian couple Jende and Neni Jonga, who have immigrated to the United States in pursuit of a better life with their six-year-old son, Liomi. The story picks up in a crucial point in American history: Jende works as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, before the collapse of the financial firm and the eventual global financial crisis that followed in 2007-08 and beyond.
The novel richly paints two opposing worlds in the same limitless expanse of New York City: Jende and Neni in Harlem; Clark and his wife Cindy in Park Avenue. Jende drives the Edwardses and earns their trust. Through hard work, Jende plans to earn enough money to pay his family’s legal fees to continue living in America. Neni, meanwhile, balances motherhood and has hopes of becoming a pharmacist.
But there are cracks in paradise. The Edwardses are separate even when together, with Jende often the only line of communication between husband, wife, and son. When Lehman collapses, both the Edwardses and the Jongas—at opposite ends of the financial totem pole—face impossible choices. The promise of the perfect American Dream is tarnished, both for the Jongas desperate to continue living and building in the United States and the privileged Edwards family whose world is crashed by the financial collapse, too.
What follows is an intimate exploration of the desperation of an American dream deferred. When Neni is faced with the possibility of having to leave the United States and raise Liomi back in their hometown of Limbe, she thinks:
And Liomi was going to become a real American one day, she whispered in the darkness. He had taken so well to America, hardly missing anyone or anything in Limbe. He was happy to be in New York, excited to walk on overcrowded streets and be bombarded by endless noise. He spoke like an American and was so knowledgeable in baseball and all the state capitals that no one who came across him would believe he was not an American but a barely legal immigrant child, a mostly illegal one, in fact, whose future in the country rested on a judge believing his father’s incredible story of fleeing persecution. They could never take him back to Limbe.
Behold the Dreamers has earned Mbue near-unanimous praise since its publication last year, including the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction, a New York Times Review Notable Book of the Year, and a selection to the Oprah Book Club. In her simple, clean prose, the author builds emphatic characters in complicated situations. In a world where immigration has become an abstract issue of political bombast, Behold the Dreamers zooms in to intimate human worlds, giving faces and voices to the individual challenges of immigration, and thus, brings the issue much closer to home.
Karan is a guest contributor at Café MFA and a third-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.