Behold the Dreamers is a story about the ‘American dream’ told from the point of view of Jende Jonga, a recent immigrant to New York from the West African nation Cameroon. Jende hits the jackpot after scoring a job as a chauffeur for Wall Street executive, Clark Edwards, a job that pays more than double any other job Jenda could feasibly obtain, such as dishwashing or cabdriving. It him offers an escape route from poverty for him and wife Nene, and their son Liomi, and potentially enough money to pay the legal fees for his asylum case.
But as the chauffeur running Clark and his family around town, Jende is privy to way more information than necessary. He hears all the endless telephone conversations of workaholic Clark, the rumblings on Wall Street, and in particular at the doomed investment bank Lehman Brothers where Clark works. As the US teeters on the brink of major financial crisis, cracks are showing not only in the economy, but in the Edwards family.
Clark’s wife Cindy, despite her outward poise, her perfect home, good looks and wanting for nothing materially, is increasingly on edge. Jende and his wife form strong bonds with the Edwards family including their young son Mighty and the elder son Vince who is on the verge of quitting law school to live in India, much to the distress of his mother. As the cracks deepen, Jende and Nene’s destinies become entwined with those of the Edwards family, forcing them to behave in ways previously unimaginable.
The Jongas love New York and are desperate to stay but when things start to sour, they must make some heartrending decisions. As Nene finds herself pregnant again and struggles to put herself through pharmacy school, she does what she can to keep her family on track, but increasingly the American dream proves as elusive as ever.
Behold the Dreamers is a novel about not only the immigrant experience but all our aspirations, and how often they are futile, of the things we do to achieve happiness for ourselves and our families. While the contrasts between the Edwards’ grand homes in the Hamptons and Manhattan’s Upper East Side are in stark contrast to the Jonga’s dingy one bedroom in Harlem, Mbue’s characterisation of the two families isn’t simplistic. Clark Edwards, despite his many faults, has many good points and for all her wealth, Cindy Edwards is a victim of circumstances too.
While the book shows the universal shortcomings of humanity, with all our many yearnings, it’s at the same time a celebration of life and people, and how beautiful they can be despite those shortcomings. It’s a novel that cuts to the very heart of life, our dreams, our hopes and how where we are born affects our destiny.
Imbolo Mbue is from Limbe, Cameroon. She has a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. She has been a resident of the US for over a decade and lives in New York City. Behold the Dreamers is her first novel. Movie rights to the book have already been snapped up by Sony Tri-Star.