Bingo Square: Own Voices
I’d been debating between this and Everything I Never Told You for this category but since I had just read The Bride Test, which was about an Vietnamese-American family and am thinking about reading a book about a Chinese family for my “Back to School” read, I figured I should diversify instead of reading about a Chinese-American family for this. Imbolo Mbue is originally from Cameroon and has lived in the United States for ten years, and her novel follows a family of immigrants from Cameroon trying to make it in the US.
I knew this wasn’t going to be a light read given that it begins when the father, Jende Jonga, gets a job as the personal chauffeur of an executive at Lehman Brothers in 2007. While it is a great opportunity at the time, the reader knows there is a strong chance this will end badly given the upcoming recession and collapse of the Lehman Brothers. Even with that, this novel was much more of a chore than I was expecting. From a decent beginning, I was ready to give the novel one star by the middle. I know it has an important message but I didn’t like the characters much at all, they were inconsistently written, and the pacing was all off. I’m not saying the ending much improved it for me, but every once in a while Mbue would address a topic that I think raised valid talking points, and could have added great pathos in a different novel instead of simply glimpses of what could have been. So as a novel to create discussion, it raises some decent points. As a novel with well-fleshed out characters that move beyond stereotypes, it does not work for me at all.
From the beginning, I struggled with my view of Jende, and I admit this was very much due to my own privilege as a white American woman. Jende is trying to get a green card and has been waiting on the courts to make a decision on his visa status for three years when he accepts the job. Based on the advice of his immigration lawyer, he filed for asylum status, using the fact that his father-in-law strongly disliked him and had him imprisoned when he initially got his now-wife Neni pregnant while she was in high school in 1990 to make a case that he feared for his life if he went home (the baby died but as one does the math and receives more details later in the novel, it is hard not to side with Neni’s father considering that Neni would have been about 15 to Jende’s 20 at this point in time – I know, I’m judging by Western standards). So it was a struggle for me – Jende wasn’t actually under threat of death, and his life wasn’t in danger so I had a hard time being too sympathetic towards someone applying for asylum status to get his visa and green card when there are so many people who are actually in need of asylum because their lives are truly in danger. It’s not that I didn’t think Jende shouldn’t have been able to stay in the States, I just didn’t necessarily agree with his method, even if he was only pursuing that route based on the advice of a potentially sketchy lawyer. But, I also am aware it is my privilege that allows me to judge him for not following the letter of law.
The other part that was difficult was reading about the Recession, of course. At the time of the collapse, I had been on active duty for two years, and still had years to go before I could even consider getting out, so it didn’t affect me. Did I end up staying in the military longer than I had originally thought I would because the Recession scared me? Yes, potentially, but I also liked the life style the Army gave me so the economy only ended up being an additional factor in my decision process. The only real immediate effect it had was that with so many other people afraid to leave the Army and so many others trying to join as a result of the Recession, it meant the officer retention bonus offer remained a one time thing and was not extended to my year group the year after it was originally made (bonuses are usually only for enlisted Soldiers). However, it’s 11 years later now, I am in the corporate world, and the idea of something like the Recession happening again soon does make me anxious.
However, while these were some initial hesitations I had that tampered my enjoyment of the novel, as the novel progressed I simply found myself liking the characters less and less. Jende is oddly naive about everything around him, always optimistic. While he and Neni started as a very loving and supportive couple who were focused on their plans for the future, at some point Jende became more controlling – possibly because with the better income, he felt like his wife should have certain freedoms. Either way, when she becomes pregnant again, he tells her she won’t go back to work for a few months after the birth and he won’t pay for her tuition for the next two semesters. Neni eventually gives in, but education was a large goal for Neni, and it bugged me how he decided to make these decisions for her.
Clark Edwards, the Lehman executive, works endless hours, seeing the pending disaster, and this drives his wife Cindy to act ever more controlling. Depending on the chapter, Neni either shows sympathy for her or talks about “women like her.” I would say Neni is probably the character I liked most, but the inconsistency in her portrayal makes even her hard to like, especially in the later chapters. While the immigration experience had some interesting moments, the most dynamic parts of the novel were probably the interactions between the Jongas and the Edwards family, but even those felt superficial and cliche. Oh, look, rich people have problems too. Oh, their oldest son, Vince, thinks capitalism is bad, wants to drop out of law school and go find himself in India … and yet, what money is paying for that ability to go to India? Not that he ever seems to quite have that much self-awareness, mostly just judging his family for their life style while reaping its rewards.
Jende just tended to irritate me with his question-less devotion to Mr. Edwards. In one scene, he and Mr. Edwards’ secretary are discussing a tabloid article that was published about Mr. Edwards and some wrong doings, and Jende decides to take a moral superior ground, telling the secretary, “I don’t like it when people make up stories about other people.” Motherfucker, you were the one driving him to those meetings, you know perfectly well those stories were true and not made up. Now, you can talk about disliking it when people pry into other people’s business or gossip, but don’t even try to pretend your boss is a fucking saint and the tabloid was spreading falsehoods.
The novel also went on too long. Given the economic collapse, I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that it affects the Jongas and their job status negatively, and I definitely think there was value in showing the options they faced and how this economic worry strained their marriage more. Unfortunately since the novel very much seemed to be about the relationship between the Edwards family and Jonga family as well as life as an immigrant, the novel suffered when so much of it happened without the Edwards family anywhere in sight.
There are definitely some good points in there about identity, obligations to home, the idea of the American dream but it just got swallowed in a mediocre novel. Basically, based on enjoyment this would be a 1 star review, and I would not recommend this to anyone, but it gets the extra star for the few parts where it does at least make a decent point about some topics.
Bingo Square: Own Voices