Similar to most books that I own, Behold the Dreamers has spent a considerable amount on my bookshelves before its time in the Sun came as part of the 2024 TBR list. I have had it long enough not to remember what the synopsis of the book is. I was pleasantly surprised once I began reading it to realize that it is a Japa fiction; a tale of migration and about migrants. The basic plot of Behold the Dreamers is familiar. A migrant family with dreams, wanting to make it in the new land and brimming with optimism in the face of the hurdles that have come to mark migration.

Jende and his wife Neni are childhood sweethearts who have come to America in search of the American dream. Jende arrived first, being sponsored by his cousin Winston, an established lawyer in America, then Jende scraps enough to bring his Neni and his son Loimi to join him in New York. Like all migrants their outlook is optimistic. They look back at the destitution they left behind in Cameroon and her propelled forward by the promises of a better life in America. There is an individual optimism that each of them espouses and there is the communal optimism that they share as a couple.  The life of a migrant is often one of faith – dreaming of great achievements while not yet having a legal stay or not being welcome by natives. How far each migrant is willing and able to exercise this faith differs and for a couple the moment one person loses hope and the faith dies, a dislocation is birthed in their domestic life. They suddenly stop pulling in one direction, like the ancient prophet Amos once said, can two walk together, except they be agreed? For the Jongas, their union suffers when one of them realises that the odds were stacked against them to the point that it did not make survival in America worthwhile. The frustration and desperation escalated to the point where each of them did something despicable. The juxtaposition of the story of the Edwardes (Jende’s employers) and the Jongas is very critical. It is easy to be blinded by privilege and consider the Jongas too desperate in their pursuit of their American dream. Most of what they had to grapple with made little sense to the Edward family, the same way the Jongas felt the Edward family had no reason to experience misery of any sort.

Reading Behold the Dreamers, I am once again reminded of that Twitter exchange where two readers were arguing about whether a particular writer was a good writer or a good storyteller. Behold the Dreamers is a relatively basic narrative, one not uncommon in the Japa fiction subgenre. However, what makes it a page-turner is Imbolo Mbue’s exquisite storytelling skills. In very simple and seemingly unspectacular prose she keeps the story flowing and keeps the reader glued like a long-lost friend updating you on stories you had missed out on. The storytelling is excellent, the characters are emphatically well drawn out. Jende seemed a bit subservient but his ability to see the best in everyone else and extend care to others even when drowning is admirable. I was rooting for him until he did the unspeakable. Neni seemed more goal-oriented and willing to bulldoze any obstacle in the way of her American dream. Her desperation is palpable but understandable. Interestingly, my favourite character in the book was Natasha, the pastor of the American church that Neni approached in her most desperate moments. Behold the Dreamers is an excellent read and highly recommended.


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