Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Genre: Literary Fiction
Behold the Dreamers is the story of Jende and Neni, two Cameroonian immigrants trying to make their way in New York City with their children in the months and years just before and after the 2008 financial crisis. I’m so glad I had the chance to read this. I really feel that it opened my eyes to some of the struggles immigrants face in trying to remain in the country legally and in trying to make better lives for themselves. That said, I did think it focused a little less on the immigration narrative and the financial crisis than I’d hoped, so I’m giving this book three stars (though I do recommend giving it a read).
Jende is an interesting character. He came to America for a better life, and he’s thrilled when he lands a job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Bros. executive, Clark Edwards, and his family. He’s making better money and there’s some level of stability, which allows him to provide for his wife, Neni, and his son, Liomi. He always seems cheerful with this job and is unfailingly loyal to his employer, but there was just something missing for me in his character. Even with his immigration struggles, I just thought he could have fought harder or found a better way to handle things than he did. Plus, by the end, I strongly disliked him and the way he treated his wife, though some of this may be a cultural issue. I don’t like overbearing men generally and hated the way what Neni wanted always seemed to be ignored.
I’d also hoped that, even though this was a story about Jende and Neni, we’d get more of a glimpse into the crisis on Wall Street, and while we do get a little of that, it isn’t much. There was much more of a focus on marriage and interpersonal drama than on either the immigration narrative or the financial crisis. In a way, this probably makes sense, because immigrants have the same concerns as everyone else, but for some reason, I just expected more.
I liked Neni for most of the book, but after she takes some extreme actions to keep her family afloat, I had trouble sympathizing with her, though I was still outraged on her behalf when Jende mistreated her or told her what to do. I wish Neni had made different choices, but again, she might have been constrained by the cultural norms that were so ingrained in her. It’s hard for me to understand this, as I could never stand by and let someone else make huge decisions about my life, but I think it was consistent behavior for her character, for the most part.
Overall, I did enjoy this book, though I felt there was something missing for me. It went quickly and I always wanted to see how things would work out for Jende and Neni (as well as the Edwardses, who definitely had their own share of problems). I gave it three stars because of some unmet expectations, but I do recommend this book. I think it helps give a little insight into the immigration situation for those of us who don’t really have experience with it, and it’s also a good reminder of how alike we all are at a basic level, despite all of our outward differences.
*ARC from Random House via NetGalley