How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

Over a year into the pandemic, things seem like they may finally be getting back to normal. I've been working from home since March of last year, but I recently learned that I'll finally be returning at the end of this month. Last weekend, I traveled out of town for a wedding. Yes, the wedding was outside and masks and social distancing were practiced, but it was nice to have some sense of normalcy after a year that has been anything but. Like many of you, I've turned to reading to help me cope with the stresses of the pandemic, escaping into fictional worlds and exploring many new authors and genres along the way. Imbolo Mbue has been on my radar ever since her debut novel Behold the Dreamers garnered rave reviews. While I never got around to reading that one, I was happy to accept her sophomore effort How Beautiful We Were to review. 

Mbue sets her novel in the fictional African village of Kosawa, a place that is rich in culture and heritage. The people there are intimately connected to the land, hunting, farming, and raising generations of families on it. Although the people of Kosawa hold a deep respect for their village, the same can't be said of the dictatorship that oversees it. The government has partnered with American oil company Pexton, allowing the corporation to mine the village of its resources with no oversight. While this partnership greatly benefits both parties, the people of Kosawa aren't reaping any rewards. Pexton is poisoning their land and killing their children. Even boiling the water has little effect on reversing the effects of Pexton's practices. The young people of the village continue to fall ill. Many of them die. Worse, there seems to be no end in sight. 

With such a dire situation in front of them, the people of Kosawa seem stuck. Pexton sends representatives to speak with them from time to time, and they voice their concerns. Pexton reassures them that they are looking into the claims of poisoning and will work with the government to find a solution. But nothing ever comes from these talks. Finally, at one of these meetings, enough is enough. Resistance begins in the unlikely form of the village fool, a man most would ignore on any other day. He takes the Pexton suits hostage, promising their release only once a resolution is reached. Thus begins the multigenerational battle between government-sanctioned big oil and the small village. 

How Beautiful We Were sees Imbolo Mbue transport her readers to a quaint village in the middle of rural Africa. She tells her David vs. Goliath story through the people at the center of it, the villagers embroiled in the fight for their land and their health, and the children who are slowly succumbing to the polluted land they are being raised on. The narrative comes together through the shifting perspectives of the various characters, casting a wide net on the village and connecting the reader to the global impact of the conflict through the most intimate lens. As in real life, this story plays out over several decades, leaving some hopeful, others jilted, and even more ready for a revolution. There's a vast scope to this novel, and Mbue deftly touches upon the personal, political, and environmental impact of the situation by leaning into her characters with a careful sense of duty to the story and the people. While I found the writing to be brilliantly descriptive and engaging, I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the novel. With such a sweeping journey throughout, I didn't feel the story reached a conclusion that adequately encapsulated everything that came before. Perhaps that is the way these things end though. Wars are waged and generations of lives are altered over natural resources. In the end, I'm not sure we can really look back and say that sum is worth the parts. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 13)

This entry was posted on Thursday, April 15, 2021 and is filed under ,,,,,,. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response.

8 Responses to “How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue”

  1. I wonder if her first book is better. I think I would find this one a bit depressing. And for some reason, I never seem to love novels that span decades.

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    1. I've heard her other book is incredible. This one wasn't bad, but I think I may have hyped it up a bit too much before reading.

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  2. This situation is sad, and unfortunately probably happens in real life, too. Glad to hear you enjoyed the story despite the ending being a bit of a letdown.

    Getting back to some normal routines is nice!

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    1. I agree. This seemed to be a mix of the kind of elements we see and read about in the news. A tragic situation that I fear is all too common.

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  3. On hello, a now author for me to find out more about. I'm sorry the ending didn't work out, but the rest of this sounds incredible.

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  4. Wow! Glad you are easing back into some normalcy. Good luck going back to the office. I hope they made all the appropriate accommodations (and that your dog doesn't miss you too much). I think it's easy to get behind a David vs Goliath type story. I know I like rooting for the little guy

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    1. Thanks! I've really grown to enjoy working from home, so this will be an interesting transition back. Thankfully the company is taking all the proper precautions to help us feel safe. As for the dogs, we'll have to see how they adjust too haha.

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