I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
“You think I don’t want to remain in America, too? You think I came to America so that I can leave? I work as a servant to people, driving them all over, the whole day, sometimes the whole week, answering yes sir, yes madam, bowing down even to a little child. For what, Neni? What pride are you talking about? I lower myself more than many men would ever lower themselves. What do you think I do it for? For you, for me. Because I want us to say in America! But if America says they don’t want us in their country, you think I’m going to keep on begging them for the rest of my life?…Never. Not for one day…”
Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers had its highs and lows. I’d like to first say that I love that Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. Rather than telling a story from hearsay and secondhand experiences, she was able to paint a realistic portrait of a modern-day Cameroonian family. The inflection in their tone and dialogue, their traditions, they all came through brilliantly here. Yet this, unfortunately, wasn’t enough for me to give this one high praise.
Behold the Dreamers was a wonderful title for a work that told a story of exactly that: a family with dreams in their eyes and a determination to fight for a good life in America the Great. The writing was simple; particularly for the first large chunk, 40% or so. It was as simple as a burlap sack, and it was a bit too rudimentary to really pull me in. It definitely didn’t strike me as literary fiction, which some have labeled it as. On the other hand, I will say that it was culturally enlightening to read about the traditions of the Cameroonians, to recognize the cadence in their voices as different from those of their American counterparts. That dialogue between the immigrants read more jauntily, more authentically, than any of the other dialogue in this novel, the only thing that seemed dazzlingly authentic, and that was a let-down for me.
There were assuming plot leaps that lurched the timeline forward in a way that made me feel I’d missed something, where I, as a reader, missed the growth of the characters and how their bonds with one another transpired or were sullied, and that made the read less enthralling. It made me invest less in it. This wasn’t like plot twists that kept you guessing—this isn’t some mystery or thriller—but major life decisions that the reader had no warning were even possible, even a thought process in the characters’ minds, that just tumbled into the plot. That, to me, was a sure sign of the author’s inability to weave a plot with finesse. It felt like I was on a bumpy car trip, feeling every pothole and speed bump. Definitely not a luxury car ride.
And then there was the fact that it took way too long for any meaningful action to transpire. By the time I looked at my counter to see that I was over 40% of the way through this novel, I was shocked at how little I was invested in the characters, at how much valuable space had gone to waste in telling the story thus far. There was a high point, for me, where the action picked up and it looked like character evolution would take place—like Neni would fight the traditions of her upbringing and stand on her own, like she would fight her hardest for her dreams, which is what she came to America to do. But then I landed with a heavy flop at that ending and literally said to myself, “Oh, I’d better not turn this page for this to be it!” (literally, imagine me sitting at my computer, finger poised over the right arrow saying, “Oh, this had better not be it!”) only to find that when I did turn the page, that was it. Without spoiling the plot for anyone, **MINOR SPOILER ALERT** this one ended with the characters not having fully transformed. A bow-tie ending it was not, but it was still a deeply unsatisfying way to go out, my goodness.
Still, there were a few places where the writing dazzled. Where it popped and sizzled and hit the right notes like here:
“For the first time in a long love affair, she was afraid he would beat her. She was almost certain he would beat her. And if he had, she would have known that it was not her Jende who was beating her but a grotesque being created by the sufferings of an American immigrant life.”
But if there’s one thing that I hate in a read—that many hate, I’d assume—it’s characters who succumb. I love a realistic read that shows us that life is not always bright, life isn’t just one happy Facebook post after another—but I also want to be able to root for characters even in their short-fallings, and I found that I couldn’t always do that here. So, in the end, the Dreamers only managed to squeak out three stars ***