Imbolo Mbue’s “How Beautiful We Were” could serve as either prequel or sequel to her debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers.” The characters are original and a portion of the time frame overlaps with the earlier story. However, in addition to complementing its predecessor thematically, this tale sets forth what might have prompted the family at the center of “Behold the Dreamers” to leave Cameroon for the US, as well as what might befall them upon their return. Written in a no-frills yet piercing prose style, “How Beautiful We Were” is an account — tragic, wrenching, and at times exasperatingly documentary-like — of one village’s struggle against the avarice of an American oil company.
The village, Kosawa, is located in an unnamed sub-Saharan African country languishing under the rule of a vain and violent authoritarian known as “His Excellency.” (Mbue, who lives in New York City, was born and raised in Cameroon.) The story of the village’s 40-year struggle, with its few ups and many downs, is related by several members of a single family, as well as a group of children turned adult revolutionaries that narrates in the first-person plural. The danger was there early on: “When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead,” the chorus recounts. Perhaps, but nobody protested.
By 1980, however, the toxic waste that permeates and poisons the hamlet’s river, soil, and air is having a lethal effect, particularly on children. At this point, the locals finally take action. Thus begins the four-decade saga of an African village that confronts its twin nemeses: the giant American oil-extraction firm of Pexton and its own corrupt, feckless national government. Various characters from the village offer differing interpretations and assessments of events, which include a protracted legal case brought against Pexton by a US-based human rights organization on behalf of Kosawa. Mbue handles all this artfully, conscripting one narrative to fill in another’s gaps, and in the process fashions a multifarious yet interconnected story.
Arguably the most arresting protagonist is Thula, a serious and studious girl whose father and several of his peers are made to disappear when they journey to the nation’s capital to lodge a complaint with the government about Pexton. Thula, still a child, yearns for her dad, sure, but also forges ahead with her education. And not just the official sort — she’s quite the autodidact. When several other villagers are killed by the military during a protest in Kosawa, a specific educational goal crystallizes in Thula’s mind: “I promised myself after the massacre that I would acquire knowledge and turn it into a machete that would destroy all those who treat us like vermin.”
For all its richness, this story doesn’t hold enough material to pad out 40 years. As a result, Mbue glides over lengthy periods of time — “Years came, years flew” or “years came and went” — with blithe disregard for such a tack’s disorienting effect on the reader. A more significant, and more frustrating, drawback is how she relates Thula’s eight years in New York City as a university student. The chapters in question often assume the form of epistolary correspondence between Thula and her friends, the aforementioned children-cum-revolutionaries. The latter, who write as one, frequently lapse into a general overview of Kosawa’s continued plight. As for Thula, Mbue tends to restrict her missives to discussions of theories of resistance; New York itself is almost completely absent from the proceedings.
When Thula returns to Kosawa, however, Mbue reignites the story, all the more so given the combustible situation with Pexton. The legal wrangling is going nowhere, and the emboldened oil firm has taken to backtracking on the precious few concessions it has previously made. Meanwhile, the children who have grown into revolutionaries tire of interminable court cases and increasingly want to, in their words, “pass a bit of our pain along to our tormentors.” In addition to prodding her characters toward the inevitable confrontation with Pexton, Mbue thrusts Thula into political activism. This allows the author to explore the thorny yet fascinating subject of cultural factors militating against the young woman’s success. It turns out that not many people in Thula’s country “would join a movement led by a woman, worse still an unmarried, childless woman.”
And when all is said and done? When the war pitting Kosawa against Pexton has drawn to a close? Well, this novel’s oblique commentary on the real-life nexus between avaricious Western fossil fuel companies and dictatorial regimes in the developing world lends it considerable gravitas. The people of Kosawa sear themselves into your consciousness — you will not soon forget the awful medical conditions wrought by Pexton’s toxic chemicals — and prick your conscience. Yet aside from Mbue’s impressive ability to transmute news items about environmental degradation into harrowing personal stories, “How Beautiful We Were” sets the stage for a test, one whose results will prove most instructive. After all, the author’s fictional characters may engender sympathy on your part and mine, but will their real-world counterparts receive tangible support from us? In the words of Kosawa’s children-cum-revolutionaries, “We wondered if America was populated with cheerful people […], which made it hard for us to understand them: How could they be happy when we were dying for their sake?”
HOW BEAUTIFUL WE WERE
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House, 364 pp., $28
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Malta. His debut novel is “When All Else Fails.”