Some novels can transport readers to a whimsical world, serving as a distraction to reality, if only for the book’s length. Then there are novels so grounded in hard truths that the reader is forced to take a closer look at their own lives and the world around them — sometimes evoking feelings so intense they incite action.
“How Beautiful We Were,” the sophomore novel from Imbolo Mbue, author of the bestselling “Behold the Dreamers,” is the latter. It’s a heartbreaking and relevant story that seeps into your bones, quickly engulfs you and doesn’t let go.
Beginning in the 1980s in a fictional African farming village named Kosawa, Mbue plants a sense of sorrow and foreboding immediately. “We should have known the end was near,” the novel begins. “How could we not have known?”
Ever since American oil company Pexton installed pipelines in the village, children have been dying regularly. The water is undrinkable. Acid rain falls from the sky, and farmlands are infertile. Pexton and the African government couldn’t care less about the environmental degradation. They ignore pleas for help, cleanup and change.
At first, the villagers don’t know their messages are being dismissed. Promises of reparations and solutions are routinely spewed from a Pexton overseer who visits Kosawa. But nothing changes. That is until Konga, the village madman, makes a decision that forces the villagers to start taking matters into their own hands. Thus begins a story of pain, loss, greed and the power of what is possible when people work together to stand against oppression.
Mbue utilizes multiple perspectives to tell this story — mostly from the collective voice “we” of those who were children when the story begins — but the novel centers around a girl named Thula and her family. Thula’s father and uncle are vital players in the first moves to stop Pexton and reclaim Koswaw, and after going to college in America, she grows up to be a revolutionary. Through those diverse viewpoints, readers are given a comprehensive, albeit disjointed, history of Koswaw, Pexton and Thula’s family.
The collective voice of the children, Thula’s peers, is one feature that makes the novel exceptionally strong. Mbue crafts the narration with dimension and care, and in turn, the reader feels like part of the village, making each setback or casualty feel personal.
This feeling of closeness Mbue masterfully crafts comes from experience. Mbue grew up in Limbe, a city in the southwest region of Cameroon that is rich in oil. Per a New York Times interview with the author, “Mbue saw that local residents couldn’t get jobs at the refinery, that oil brought wealth but not to the people who lived on the land above it.” Mbue went on to say, “[‘How Beautiful We Were’] was an incredibly difficult book to write, because it’s very personal. How can the degradation of the environment for the sake of profit not be personal?”
That attitude is echoed in passages in the novel. “How can people not care about children? How can they not see what they’re doing to our children what other people could one day do to their children?” While we may not live in the same neighborhoods, the same country, the earth belongs to all of us. The destruction of ecosystems through the depletion of resources affects everyone and will continue to affect future generations to come. It’s a topic many readers will find relatable.
The problem of environmental degradation is not singular to Africa, of course. Thula discovers that during her time in the U.S. “But now that I live here I’m realizing that something far more complex is going on all over the world,” she writes in a letter to her village peers, “something that binds us to these beset Americans and others like us in villages and town and cities in nations big and small.” The lust for money, the drive for more, more, more, and the disregard for nature — these blights infect countries worldwide.
The seeds for “How Beautiful We Were” were planted years before Mbue’s debut novel, “Behold the Dreamers,” and began sprouting when Mbue lived in the U.S. as news spread about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. But while the situation is not unique to one town or village, that doesn’t take any from anyone’s suffering. The story is drenched in so much grief and agony that it makes you want to figure out what you can do to change the disproportionate distribution of power and the abuse that comes with it.
While Mbue doesn’t offer a solution, “How Beautiful We Were” is a novel that will incite action and hopefully change. It’s fuel added to the already raging fire of conversations about climate change, environmental issues and the ever-present and still lingering problems of colonialism.