Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

36510285._sy475_Fiction – Kindle edition. Random House, 2016. 401 pgs. Purchased.

In the fall of 2007, a Cameroonian man named Jende Jonga is living in New York City and attempting to provide a better life for his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. Jende, who has a temporary work visa while his asylum case makes its way through the courts, is thrilled when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers.

Readers, of course, have the benefit of hindsight, knowing that Lehman Brothers will collapse within a year of Jende starting work as chauffeur for Clark and his family. But Jende and his wife have no idea, marveling over their fortune when Clark’s wife, Cindy, offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons.

Ominous music seems to play in the background of this novel because, as soon as the year and the name of Clark’s employer is given, the reader knows the future will not be kind to the Jonga family. The only question was just howbad things would be by 2009. As such, the story works a bit like a train wreck; it is impossible to tear your eyes away even though you know the conclusion will be horrifying.

As realistic and heartbreaking as Mbue’s novel is, I did struggle with some of her characterization and how many stereotypes her characters follow, particularly for Clark’s wife, Cindy. Originally presented as a privileged white woman, Mbue tries to add color to her character by giving her a difficult childhood. This background plays out in a stereotypical fashion – Cindy smothers her children because her mother didn’t love her – and yet manages to fall flat when Cindy directs her anger towards Jende and, later, to herself.

Still, I rated this novel as a solid four stars on GoodReads for its unique take on the plight of immigrants in America. Given the current anti-immigrant climate in the United States, Mbue’s novel carries a more powerful punch than it might have back in the spring of 2016 when it was first published. The whole situation seems unjust: a family searching for a better life are punished by an economic system they are largely locked out of due to their (il)legal status and socio-economic outlook.

Attempts to rectify their legal status are hamstringed by a lack of clear, consistent guidelines, making it difficult to understand if the advice of their lawyer is correct. And, as the economy continues to nosedive, Jende comes to the heartbreaking realization that America won’t even protect its own citizens from destitute. In turn, the story forces the reader to wonder why America has the system it has.

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