Review: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

I was excited to receive an advanced review copy of Imbolo Mbue’s newest novel, because I loved her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers.  This novel is very different from that one, and unfortunately I didn’t enjoy it as much.  The story is slow-paced and didn’t have the depth of emotion I saw in Behold the Dreamers.

It’s the story of a small, fictional village in Africa that is being poisoned by the operations of an American oil company.  Oil spills have made it impossible to grow crops, and children are dying from toxic chemicals in the drinking water.  Several of the village leaders left to take their concerns to the government, and they never returned.  At a town meeting, the villagers decide to fight back, but their actions are likely to bring down the wrath of the government, which of course is in the oil company’s pocket.

The story is told from a number of different perspectives and over several decades, although the story focuses on one character, Thula. Thula is a young girl at the beginning of the story, when her father leaves to confront the government and never comes back. Thula is a studious girl who is not comfortable with the limitations put on girls and women in her village. Girls are expected to marry and bear children young, and if their husbands die, they are never allowed to remarry. She wants more for herself and for her village.

I was struck by the connection the villagers have to their land, which is similar to many Native American stories I’ve read. Some of the villagers choose to leave, but many will die before they leave the land that is their home.  I’ve never felt particularly tied to one place, so I always find that interesting and wish I had that sense of connection.  

I really wanted to love this book, but I found it slow and plodding in the second half. The characters of Thula, her mother, and her uncle were compelling, but the second half is told by characters who are less interesting, plus Thula is absent for much of the second half. Because of this structure, I never felt I got to know Thula, who tells her story instead through lengthy letters. I felt the author may have tried to cover too much time and too many different characters. The author writes every other chapter from the perspective of a group of villagers, a sort of chorus, who begin as children and age throughout the story.  It’s an interesting structure but I don’t know that it added to the story.

The first half tells a devastating story, and then the second half feels rather academic.  It’s more about legal strategizing and the philosophy of social activism than about the characters, who are never well-developed.  There are very important ideas here, and I appreciated that this is a book that forces Americans to see how our consumerism has a terrible impact on lives around the globe. But I had to force myself to finish this book, and I’m not sure how many people will do that.

I even think the title and cover do not serve this book well. The title is forgettable and neither reflects what is most interesting about this story. 

Note: I received an advanced review copy from NetGalley and publisher Random House.  This book publishes March 9, 2021.

  3 comments for “Review: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

  1. March 7, 2021 at 2:50 pm

    It’s always rough when an author disappoints – the cover is off-putting for me, and I really have to be motivated to read a book like this.

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