“It’s unbelievable, you know, what a blip our existence is in the infinite expanse of the universe.” — Austin (p.284)
To be reading a story like this in June 2020, when news reports everywhere are outraged over the treatment and murder of the black American, George Floyd, by a white police officer, Imbolo Mbue’s second novel feels uncannily pertinent. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, How Beautiful We Were is an outcry against American corporate greed and its willingness, without riposte, to devastate the lives and land of any who stand in the way of its pursuits. It is about land ownership, gross injustice, family, tradition, loss and grief and what happens when those cheated of their right to live peaceful, healthy lives, take matters into their own hands.
Pexton is an American oil company whose pipelines beneath Kosawa’s soil and a succession of spills have rendered its farmlands infertile and poisoned the water. The rivers, instead of running clear, are viscous with slime and toxic waste. The village children are dying. The assurances given to the villagers during monthly meetings with Pexton representatives that a clean-up will happen, unsurprisingly, come to nothing. Eventually they decide to take a stand:
“We anticipated our new lives as conquerors. They’d proclaimed victory over us prematurely. That night we declared war on them, and the next morning we awaited their arrival. They should have known we’re not easily defeated.”
On their next visit the villagers take the Pexton men captive and keep them hidden in the back room of one of their huts for weeks. When one of them falls seriously ill he begs the villagers to let him return home to his family. He gives them the details of his nephew, a journalist, and urges them to go find him at the newspaper offices where he works. He says Austin will tell Kosawa’s story and send it to his sister paper in America. Americans will read what he has to say and become outraged at the way Pexton is treating people in Africa. They will storm the offices of Pexton’s American headquarters in large numbers and protest on Kosawa’s behalf. Three men make the long bus journey to Bézam and the reader learns of how they first meet Austin. What happens after they leave his offices no one knows, but they never return home.
One of these men is Malabo Nangi. When his daughter, Thula, grows up she becomes the central character in the novel. Brighter and more curious about the world than her peers she travels to America to study. Through reading books like The Communist Manifesto, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and The Wretched of the Earth, she becomes an activist, eventually returning home where she and a group of her peers attempt to get justice for their village. For her friends she has become a hero. A strong and determined young woman who feels compelled to fight for her community’s right to live and thrive in a safe environment. Secrectly, though she doesn’t admit it to anyone, the idea that she might die in pursuit of their cause frightens her:
“The mystery of it confounds me. How someone could be here and not here; in our world, but also gone from it, with a nose closed off to air, eyes that won’t open; a human, but just a thing. I hate this world, but I don’t yearn to leave it. I want to live long and see what life after a twisted childhood looks like, but I know death is eager to claim me – my journey to reunite with Papa might begin tomorrow.”
Following the current trends of structuring novels the story is, once again, told through the voices of each of the main characters. In dedicated chapters they relate events from their own particular perspective while carrying the plot forward so that by the end the reader has a complete and comprehensible narrative before him as he closes the book. In the last third of the novel much of this is ‘told’ in letters Thula writes from America to her friends back home, rather than ‘shown’ through dialogue or the portrayal of experiences.
As the collective voice of Thula’s generation, in one of the chapters dedicated to them her peers, now approaching adulthood, ponder the circumstances of their lives:
“Fate hadn’t given us numerous chances to be children, but we’d grabbed every occasion we could; though now, as we went further into maturity, few traces of our childish ways remained. Still, no matter how far behind the past was, we saw its face with clarity when we weren’t even looking for it. We couldn’t speak of the future without segueing into a lament for the bygone days of our ancestors; those simpler days the like of which we feared we might never see.”
The story Imbolo Mbue tells couldn’t really end any other way than it does, because otherwise it would be a fantasy which I don’t believe was Mbue’s intention. As it is, her novel is a mostly grim read, but one that is utterly believable in its gothic realism about the arrogance of large corporations and the lies they are prepared to perpetuate in order to carry out their corrupt practices. As a character, Thula Nangi bears echoes of the American environmental activist, Erin Brokovich, while the plot reminded me of George Alagiah’s novel, The Burning Land, which I reviewed on this site last year.
Any Cop?: Following Imbolo Mbue’s poignant, yet astutely observed début novel, Behold the Dreamers (2017), How Beautiful We Were may be disappointing for some readers, but in the present climate of seeking justice for black and / or oppressed people it strikes a very salient note indeed.