Set in Limbe, Cameroon, and New York’s Harlem, in the United States, Imbolo Mbue’s first novel Behold The Dreamer, is about a migrant, Jende Jonga, working as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive, in the times of America’s greatest financial crisis.
While Jende dreams of a miracle to transform his status, he puts in an application for a green card and invites his wife Neni — and their six-year-old son Liomi — to join him on a student visa. Mbue writes effortlessly, with passion and hunger of a first-time novelist; injecting humour as well as vivid description into her work to breathe life in his characters.
Being an immigrant herself, it’s no surprise that Mbue draws from her experience to explore the life of an African in Harlem barely trying to make ends meet, in a country that can’t decide its feelings towards migrants even though Jende’s wife believes America is “a magnificent land of inhibited dreamers”.
What does it mean to be a migrant, struggling to make ends meet in an America that is in financial distress? The fabric that holds a migrant together in a distant land is the memory of home and love of family, as well as the desperation to “make it” out of chronic poverty.
The book will draw your heart’s strings and make you think of everyone who has ever gone to America, wondering about their status, what they say they do versus what they actually do.
The immigration system takes Jende on, and his immigration lawyer’s concocted story of why he needs to be allowed to stay in America doesn’t fly.
Jende goes full circle, opting to leave America with all its charms, but not before it breaks him. The novel also explores the relationship between the one per cent super-rich white people with the immigrant community.
It also examines hope, in the story of Jende and his wife Neni, their faith and persistence in the face of their turbulence. The title, Behold The Dreamer, holds a particular significance as the story unfolds.
The charm that comes with being starry-eyed and dreaming of better days unfold in the 382 pages — in the collective and individual lives of Mbue’s characters.
The book is full of suspense and draws the reader in. The layers of text written skilfully, wrap up in the end, weaved to completion, leaving no ends undone.
Mbue’s mastery of language, her characters and the story make the reader hope for more of her work in future — making her a writer to watch.