BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue [in Booklist]

Imbolo Mbue’s PEN/Faulkner-winning Behold the Dreamers unveiled immigrants chasing the American Dream; her searing sophomore title exposes U.S. destruction beyond its borders. In an unnamed African nation, oil giant Pexton has been poisoning the farming village of Kosawa – water, land, air, and people. With the country’s dictatorship greedily dependent on Pexton’s unimpeded success, intervention proves impossible. A local takes matters into his own hands, igniting a multi-generational stand-off between foreign corporate greed and multiplying victims, inevitably escalating toward tragedy.

An extensive cast elevates Mbue’s narrative with luminous characterizations: most prevalent is Prentice Onayemi, who voices “the children” – chorus-like witnesses who eventually become grown men, still struggling decades later to claim control over their homes and lives. Lisa Renee Pitts urgently, hauntingly embodies Thula, singled out among the children to be sent away for a U.S. education that will transform her into the triumphantly returning village savior. JD Jackson is her younger brother Juba, who almost dies as a boy, and who will live to become an arrogant man. Janina Edwards is unsettled as the siblings’ mother Sahel; Dion Graham mesmerizes as their uncle Bongo; Allyson Johnson achingly survives as their grandmother Yaya. The all-too-rare, who-read-whom cast list at recording’s end is another reason for that standing ovation.

Review: modified from “Media,” Booklist, July 2021

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2021


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