The Premise: Jende came to New York from Cameroon to find a better life, for him, for his wife and for his son. Finding work as the chauffeur of a Wall Street big man seems to solve all his problems, but the complexities of the immigration system, as well as the financial crash of 2008, throw problems Jende’s way.
Thoughts: Behold the Dreamers was, presumably, written some time before immigration became the political issue on everyone’s lips; as I write this review, the world is horrified by Trump’s order to ban travel from 7 countries, and his general attitude towards immigration. It all lends an even greater sense of pathos to Jende’s attempts to secure a permanent home in America for his country; when questioned by his boss about his desire to become American, Jende responds, “everyone wants to come to America, sir. Everyone. To be in this country, sir. To live in this country. Ah! It is the greatest thing in the world,” and it’s a sentiment repeated throughout. Jende’s wife, Neni, was subject to her father’s control back in Limbe, unable to work or marry Jende; in New York, she can study and work towards her dream of becoming a pharmacist. Her desperation about their perilous status in the USA drives her to church, where she rhapsodises about her idea of “Americans who wanted to keep good hard-working immigrants in America.” In my mind, these words were juxtaposed with the images of the protests against Trump’s immigration policies. Behold the Dreamers is heavily caught up in what America is and what it represents, and, as such, it’s a timely book to read in 2017.
Aside from the topical nature of aspects of its plot, Behold the Dreamers is a hugely involving story, replete with contrasts that make the novel’s points incisively. Jende, Neni and their son, Liomi, live in a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem; Jende’s employer, Mr Edwards, lives with his wife and son in an opulent apartment with views of Central Park, where everything is white and shining: imagery of purity and perfection which is swiftly undercut by Mbue’s presentation of the wealthy Edwards family as far more broken and just as troubled as their citizenship-seeking counterparts. Clark Edwards is a key figure at Lehman Brothers, and so Jende’s American Dream is set against the backdrop of an American nightmare, giving Behold the Dreamers another degree of resonance.
In Conclusion: I really enjoyed Behold the Dreamers. While its plot seems particularly devastating in light of current events, it also offers its reader an absorbing family saga as well as an insight into deeply contrasting walks of life. Jende and his family are impossible to forget, with Behold the Dreamers offering heartache and warmth, as well as harrowing drama.