Fiction Review: How Beautiful we Were by Imbolo Mbue

Published by: Penguin Random House

How Beautiful we Were is the second novel from award winning author Imbolo Mbue.  This stirring story is set in a fictional African village that’s being slowly poisoned as an American oil company extracts crude.  Pipelines burst destroying crops, rains turn acid, and the river becomes toxic.  The story begins as the village children start to die. Told from the shifting perspective of the age-mates of dying children and from the family members, and individual voice of a burgeoning revolutionary girl, the book reads as a parable – or series of parables - flanked by a chorus of “age-mates” or The Children telling their collective tale.

This is a book about the little guy fighting life or death against corporate greed.  Mbue’s decision to tell the story from the perspective of the multigenerational family members of Thula –  a girl from the village that eventually moved to New York to study and plan the fight against the oil company - is gut-wrenchingly brilliant.  On more than one occasion I was moved to tears by the beauty of her prose. “She avoided us as though her grief and ours were parallel rivers.”

Mbue is an immensely talented author.  Her first novel Behold the Dreamers struck me in the heart and forced me to properly and deeply contemplate my privilege.  Coming from a white immigrant family, I made the assumption that all immigrant/migrant stories were held together by a common understanding; a common pain. Mbue’s book compelled me to seriously challenge this presumption within myself.  While doing this difficult work of addressing meaty topics like class inequality and immigration, Mbue was able to simultaneously delight me as a reader. Behold the Dreamers was a gem of a novel and I was hopeful that How Beautiful we Were would be just as engaging.  

In How Beautiful we Were, Mbue has crafted a painful and specific story that humanizes a handful of massively difficult concepts.   

“‘Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who come to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same. No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here thinking they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.’”

I find it challenging to conceptualize the effects that multinational oil interests have on our world, the environment, and people.  It’s too big for me.  Just like Behold the Dreamers forced me to look inward, How Beautiful we Were  has invited me to think specifically about the effects of corporate greed and our environment. 

“Only when we became parents did we realize how we could harm our children in an attempt to clean our for them the smothering decay of this world.” 

This book provides a tangible and digestible, story of persistence, and pain.  With precision, this story examines what happens when ways of life are destroyed.

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Review by: Candice Suchocki Weir