I loved this thoughtful book about immigration and U.S. citizenship. It was the perfect complement to the other books I’ve read on this subject, like Lisa Ko’s The Leavers and Diane Guerrero’s In the Country I Love.
This is the story of Jende Jonga and his wife Neni. The Jongas are from Cameroon, having emigrated to the U.S. for a better life. Jonga lands a job as a chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a wealthy businessman at Lehman Brothers. The work is good; the Edwards are a pleasant family and the job pays well. Plus the Edwards are helpful to the Jongas in a number of ways as they navigate their new city and country.
This is really the story of both families, for we see the Jongas through the eyes of the Edwards and vice versa. And while the Edwards have everything and the Jongas have very little, both have challenges. Mbue does an excellent job of making all four main characters sympathetic and helping us see into each perspective. Clark Edwards is a businessman who stresses about his work and doesn’t understand his wife and children. His wife Cindy is a pampered Wall Street wife who feels neglected by her husband and worries about her two sons.
Life for the Jongas is completely different. They are one job away from poverty and have to deal with the constant threat of deportation. The process to gain legal status in the U.S. is impossible to understand, and they spend most of Jende’s earnings on an immigration lawyer (and the rest on constant requests from relatives back home). They struggle to learn the ways of New York but still stay connected to each other and to their Cameroonian culture.
I loved Jende and Neni. Jende is so thoughtful and earnest, trying his hardest every day to make his employers and his family happy. His weakness lies in his paternalism towards his wife; he feels he has to make the decisions and earn the money for their family. Neni is smart, ambitious, and she takes to New York immediately. She’s in school to become a pharmacist and pregnant with their second child.
But when troubles arise in the lives of the Clarks, those troubles have ripple effects in the lives of the Jengas. This book gave me a lot of insight about not only the lives of immigrants to the U.S., but also the interdependence of one family upon another. For example, when Lehman Brothers starts sinking, it would make perfect sense for the Clarks to cut back on a luxury like a chauffeur — yet that choice could have tragic implications for the Jenga family.
I also saw myself, and the life I lead, reflected through the eyes of a family that’s just trying to get by. In so many ways the miseries of the Clark family are of their own making, but they are still real. What makes this book so good is that Mbue never lets either of these families become a stereotype.
Even New York, the United States, and Cameroon are depicted in both positive and negative ways. At first, New York is like a dream to the Jengas, but over time it becomes more complicated than that. Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon, and has lived in New York for over a decade. This is her first novel.
This is a slow-paced but deeply moving book, and it really made me think. Each of the four characters was so well-developed, I sympathized with all of them — even when they do awful things to each other. Mbue gives us no easy answers, and no one to blame.