How Beautiful We Were

Imbolo Mbue

Published by Random House US/Canongate UK 9/11 March 2021

384pp, hardback, 28/£14.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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The mocking laughter of a village madman sets events in motion in Mbue’s devastating second novel. The use of insanity to jumpstart a tale of tragedy – and to embolden a cowed population to challenge the power of their oppressor – is an early indicator of the deftness of what is to follow.

This new book is a continent and a world away from Mbue’s award-winning debut, Behold the Dreamers, a story of African immigrants in New York City that offered social commentary within a commercial framework. Her new book is graver, more intensely politic, and piercing at a deeper level.

Set in the village of Kosawa in an unnamed African country, it pits the culture of a small community with deep cultural and geographic roots against the government-condoned environmental degradation wrought by American oil giant Pexton that is removing oil from the land. Poisoning the soil, the water and the air, Pexton is killing Kosawa, especially its children, while its profits line the pockets of the country’s leader, known only and chillingly as His Excellency.

For years the people of the village have endured this despoliation of their valley and way of life, but the madman’s intervention challenges them to act, and so begins a decades-long tale of suffering and struggle. Mbue switches viewpoints between genders and generations, allowing the restrained eloquence of her characters – whether children or grandparents, male or female, single or in a group – to express the beliefs and ways of the Kosawans. For all their pain, theirs is a world of immense grace and natural order, grounded in meaning derived from a spiritual, social, familial and healing credo. This culture and morality stands in blazing contrast to the rapaciousness and self-interest of the oil company, and the government that protects it.

One family in particular emerges from the group, and of that family a daughter, Thula, whose introverted intelligence is fed by the incremental losses visited upon her. When the scandal of Kosawa finally emerges into the world, it is Thula who is enabled, by education, to take her community’s fight beyond what was achieved or achievable by her forbears.

This clear, simple-seeming story of heartbreak, injustice and anger calls to mind other classics of the genre – Hard Times, The Grapes of Wrath. Epic wrongs are challenged with soft insight, encouraged by idealism, tempered by experience. This is didactic territory, suffused with humanity, in which novels invite an irresistible response in the face of sequential wrong inflicted on the innocent.

As a story of optimism and idealism, the novel ends, as it must, in a place of reality and large-scale failure. At the same time, Mbue widens her lens, to mourn a different, more thorough-going transition, away from the African history symbolized by Kosawa, towards a ‘developed’ society that has lost touch with the rituals, manners and modes of its forbears. Richer, perhaps more equal, the Kosawans of today have blended into a modernized country that offers material improvement, at the cost of ancestral continuity. Is life better? The reader must decide.

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