“Behold the Dreamers” is one of those books I appreciated but didn’t always enjoy. It’s very frank in its portrayal of the characters in which they are all flawed, yet very real. I enjoyed and disliked this as I tend to “escape” into books and I don’t always like having to dislike a character all the while recognizing that the character could very well be someone I’ve met in real life. In this sense I’d say Mbue’s art reflected life.
The novel focuses on Jende and Neni as they attempt to make a new life in NYC just prior to the 2008 economic collapse. Jende and Neni knew each other in their native Cameroon, and after sometime Jende has been able to bring Neni and their son Liomi to join him in NYC. What awaits them is not only the scary prospect of a collapsed economy and one, in 2008, no one knew where it would stop. They also faced many of the barriers that immigrants face all the time: expiring visas, inconsistent work, balancing work, family, and school, racial tensions, socioeconomic divides, etc. Mbue paints a picture of the struggle some immigrants face in just getting their foot in America’s door.
Many of the people who flesh out the Jende and Neni’s story are just as flawed as they are making the book a great choice for a book club selection. Jende has the biggest dreams, yet he doesn’t always understand what it will take to achieve the dream nor does he realize that the “foundation” his dreams are built is the generosity of others. He quickly learns that when push comes to shove, this generosity can be withdrawn and suddenly his dreams don’t seem so achievable. Neni, on the other hand, has a much more independent foundation for her dreams. In fact, without giving away much, I was cheering for her to fight more for her dreams in the end than was actually written.
The ending, this is the one thing that I feel I would change about the book. I feel that how the ending is written, it makes it seem like everything is just going to be ok. Yet some very consequential decisions have been made it doesn’t seem like the characters are taking ownership of the consequences. It felt more that they were at best in denial and at worst being rewarded for their choices.
I do recommend this book as there are many layers to it and a great piece to discuss.