I was excited about this book even before I started reading it. Imbolo Mbue’s debut Behold the Dreamers tells the story of Jende and Neni Jonga, Cameroonian immigrants living in Harlem. They come to the United States in search of the American dream: a better life for themselves and their son Liomi, and in the fall of 2007, the dream seems to come true. Jende lands a job working as a chauffeur for Lehman Brothers exec Clark Edwards, while Neni secures part-time employment from his wife Cindy, a woman whose abusive past consistently pokes through the veneer of New York high society.
As the novel progresses, the families develop intimate knowledge of each others’ secrets: Clark’s infidelity and unsuccessful attempts to reconcile his job and moral compass; Cindy’s struggles with addiction; Jende’s financial entanglement with his family in Cameroon; Neni’s rejection of her family for her husband and her refusal of traditional gender roles. Simultaneously, we get a sense of the larger economic forces jostling each other in the uptick the 2008 recession: Jende’s relatives in Arizona suddenly buy multiple homes on sub-prime and packaged mortgages sold by firms like Lehman Brothers, while Jende himself accumulates savings and security for his family through the trickle-down profits of Clark’s shady business deals.
Then, on September 15, 2008, when the prominent investment banking company files for bankruptcy, Jende, Neni, and Clark are all cut loose, floating in a vortex absent of gravity, jobs, and moral clarity. In the months that follow, Jende and Neni learn the contingencies and fragility of friendships across race and class, and the hustle of navigating the trapdoors of the American dream, even as their marriage is in danger of falling apart. Desperate to stay in America and continue her education, Neni takes matters into her own hands, blackmailing Cindy to insure a family nest egg–that is, ultimate Jende asserts his dormant patriarchal authority and deposits the money in his own name.
“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…but if America says they don’t want us in this country, you think I’m going to keep begging them for the rest of my life?…Never.”
Riding a first wave of shattered paradise and deflated dreams, and tugged by a pulling undercurrent of xenophobia, Jende and Neni make the decision to return to Cameroon, bucking the immigrant narrative and indicting a country that sells a dream while concealing its cracks.