This book was a bit outside my comfort zone, and that was a good thing. Behold the Dreamers begins in 2007 and follows Jende Jonga, a man from Cameroon trying to make a life in America. After two years, he is able to bring his wife Neni and son Liomi to live with him. He starts working as a driver for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive.
A year ago, I would not have picked up a book which set out to examine the American dream, or which covered the collapse of Lehman Brothers. A book about the struggle of immigration, perhaps, but for the most part I think I would have assumed this story would be over my head. Economics aren’t something I claim any real understanding of. At the time this novel takes place, I was fourteen and fifteen, and most of the news sailed right past me. In fact, all of that made this a far more interesting book for me.
While the book doesn’t flinch from these topics, what makes it spin – what forms its beating heart – are the relationships. The family drama is the centre of the story; the ups and downs of both Jende’s marriage to Neni and Clark’s relationship with his wife Cindy. The financial forces at work behind the scenes here are portrayed through their effect on little human moments.
The gap between rich and poor is fascinatingly explored with incredibly sympathy. Neither group is ever caricatured, because Mbue’s characters are so incredibly well built. Fathers relationship to their families and their responsibilities are tenderly touched on at both ends of the spectrum: both Jende and Clark endure stress with the intention that it will create a future for their children. They also share an attitude over how their children will feel about this, expecting gratitude for the life they will hand to them, which is beautifully overturned within the novel.
While I was expecting quite a cerebral read and did find that here, it is also very compellingly readable. A reflection on the ‘American dream’ and how possible it is to achieve is explored with a light and sensitive touch.