The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In ‘How Beautiful We Were,’ an African village goes up against an American oil company

In 2016, during a presidential campaign punctuated by racist alarms about immigration, Imbolo Mbue published her first novel about an African man struggling to become an American citizen. Informed by her own experience as an immigrant from Cameroon, “Behold the Dreamers” captured the hopes and frustrations of millions of people drawn to this country. Mbue’s capacious sympathy and careful fidelity to the voices of her characters — from the extraordinarily rich to the precariously poor — made “Behold the Dreamers” one of the most illuminating and touching novels of the year. When it won the PEN/Faulkner prize, Mbue’s success felt like a double celebration of the artistic talent of a young writer and the growing diversity of our literary canon.

Mbue’s new novel, “How Beautiful We Were,” once again asks us to behold the dreamers. But it’s an entirely different book, born of a very different dream. Begun almost two decades ago, this is the story of people touched by the United States from thousands of miles away. Though they place their trust in American decency, they’re not hoping to be allowed in but to be left alone.

“How Beautiful We Were” — that past tense is devastating — takes place in the village of Kosawa in an unnamed African country. Guessing the real location isn’t necessary; the tragedy that unfolds in these pages has been repeated in nations across the continent.

Review: “Behold the Dreamers,” by Imbolo Mbue

“We should have known the end was near,” the story begins. “When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead.”

This is the old pattern of the West clawing through Africa, scraping away its resources, despoiling its land and murdering its people. As usual, the program of exploitation is driven by greed, enforced by guns and sanctified by a philosophy of natural superiority. But that familiar desecration is made wrenchingly fresh by the power of Mbue’s storytelling. Through some rare alchemy, she has blended the specificity of a documentary with the universality of a parable to create a novel that will disturb the conscience of every reader.

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When we meet the villagers of Kosawa, the damage to their homeland is already pervasive. Pexton, an American oil company, has failed to protect the local people and environment. Promised “a wonderful thing called ‘prosperity,’ ” they have instead reaped only sickness. Repeated spills and leaks, along with the attendant chemicals necessary for extraction, have poisoned the water, clogged the air and ruined the land. Babies and children have borne the brunt of the toxins. The raspy cough is the first symptom — then the rash, then the fever. “Those of us who survived feared our death was close,” the plural narrator says. “We were certain we’d be the next, though sometimes we feared we’d be the last.”

Nothing is more heartbreaking in this novel than the villagers’ persistent faith that if they could only explain their plight to the right officials at Pexton, the company would stop killing them. “Waiting has become us,” they note. These people are not fools, but they have neither the legal sophistication nor the weathered cynicism to imagine such autonomous evil. Despite all they’ve endured, the Kosawans can’t fathom that corporations — possibly the West’s most magical invention — are entities perfectly designed to insulate people from the ethical implications of their actions and their wealth. Pexton administrators express the appropriate concern while continuing to pay the nation’s vicious leader for unencumbered access to the country’s oil. And so the promises and the deaths continue their grisly duet year after year.

Until the center cannot hold.

In 1980, near the end of another dispiriting meeting between Pexton representatives and the local people, the village madman interrupts the proceedings. “Gentlemen,” he tells the stunned officials, “you’ll be spending the night with us in Kosawa.” That politely announced act of kidnapping lights the fuse on a series of violent acts and government reprisals that will rip through Kosawa for decades.

With a style that conveys the musical cadence of a local dialect, Mbue creates the African village in all its ancient nuance. Time flows and eddies in this telling, rushing forward and looping back the way legends gradually coalesce in the shared memories of scattered people.

As Mbue moves through these years, the voices of the children return again and again to describe the struggles of their village. But the novel also focuses on one of those young people, a precocious girl named Thula Nangi. After witnessing the abuse of her village and the particularly high price paid by her family, Thula promises herself: “I know nothing about how a girl makes men pay for their crimes, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.”

“How Beautiful We Were” is largely the story of Thula’s effort to solve that conundrum. It’s an effort that draws her to the United States, where she studies the history of civil rights and national revolutions. Playing the long game, she hopes to return to Africa someday equipped with the knowledge and the passion to reclaim her land.

Growing up under a dictatorship in Cameroon, Mbue knows the despair that germinates in the contaminated soil of these industrial crimes. Her novel follows out the endless cycles of acquiescence and resistance, exposure and neglect, litigation and corruption that grind down exploited people.

But polemical as the novel may be, it never loses its moral complexity. Although “How Beautiful We Were” is a love letter to a communal way of life lived close to nature, it’s not a wholly romantic vision that ignores the villagers’ own flaws. Despite their “brand of fragile innocence,” Mbue affords the people of Kosawa the full range of human decency and selfishness. And though Thula eventually enjoys considerable respect as the leader of an opposition movement, she must always contend with her own chauvinistic culture that’s deeply skeptical of an unmarried woman who asserts herself.

In any practical sense, the village that Thula and her friends are trying to save is already gone. From the first line, we know what awaits Kosawa. But the fatalism of this story is countered by the beauty of Mbue’s prose and the purity of her vision. “We hoped,” the children say, “that we would die where we were born.” As long as there are novels this powerful, the fight’s not over.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.

From our archives:

Watch: Imbolo Mbue talks about her life and inspiration.

How Beautiful We Were

By Imbolo Mbue

Random House. 364 pp. $28

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