A kind of moral claustrophobia hangs over the opening pages of Imbolo Mbue’s sweeping and quietly devastating second novel, How Beautiful We Were ... It’s a propulsive beginning, though one that feels at first as though it’s about to roam familiar ground — a tale of a casually sociopathic corporation and the people whose lives it steamrolls. By the end of the first chapter, I couldn’t help bracing for a long march toward one of two conclusions: the corporation’s inevitable victory, or its wildly unlikely but inspiring defeat. I was wrong. What carries Mbue’s decades-spanning fable of power and corruption is something much less clear-cut, and what starts as a David-and-Goliath story slowly transforms into a nuanced exploration of self-interest, of what it means to want in the age of capitalism and colonialism — these machines of malicious, insatiable wanting.
The novel's reach could have easily exceeded its grasp, given the weighty themes and its span, but Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel's end, has it firmly held in her hands ... The novel is kaleidoscopic in design, but one girl, Thula, becomes perhaps the closest thing to a protagonist ... But Mbue, gloriously, avoids the trap of depicting the Story of Africa as pure and unmitigated exploitation and slow-moving calamity. Some of the novel's most thrilling sections are those that follow Thula as she fights to depose the dictator whose complicity has eviscerated her home ... Though Mbue's novel serves as elegy to a land lost, it is also a celebration of something less tangible gained, whatever it is that's captured in the voice of a first-generation diasporic Kosawan asking their Big Papa or their Yaya to please tell them a story of the old country.
... that familiar desecration is made wrenchingly fresh by the power of Mbue’s storytelling. Through some rare alchemy, she has blended the specificity of a documentary with the universality of a parable to create a novel that will disturb the conscience of every reader ... With a style that conveys the musical cadence of a local dialect, Mbue creates the African village in all its ancient nuance. Time flows and eddies in this telling, rushing forward and looping back the way legends gradually coalesce in the shared memories of scattered people ... polemical as the novel may be, it never loses its moral complexity. Although How Beautiful We Were is a love letter to a communal way of life lived close to nature, it’s not a wholly romantic vision that ignores the villagers’ own flaws. Despite their 'brand of fragile innocence,' Mbue affords the people of Kosawa the full range of human decency and selfishness. And though Thula eventually enjoys considerable respect as the leader of an opposition movement, she must always contend with her own chauvinistic culture that’s deeply skeptical of an unmarried woman who asserts herself ... the fatalism of this story is countered by the beauty of Mbue’s prose and the purity of her vision.
Readers who enjoyed Behold the Dreamers will be pleased that Mbue persisted to tell this powerful story of the fateful clash between an American oil company and the tiny African village forced to live with the consequences of its environmental destruction ... Mbue devotes considerable attention to issues like patriarchy and the beauty and role of myth and magic in the lives of Kosawa’s villagers, deepening and contextualizing the novel’s tragic elements. How Beautiful We Were proceeds at a deliberate pace that’s appropriate for the moral gravity of the story and the fateful choices—wise and unwise, but always undeniably human—made by Mbue’s characters. To those disinclined to question the role that economic exploitation plays in supporting our modern lifestyle, reading this novel may prove an unsettling experience.
The mocking laughter of a village madman sets events in motion in Mbue’s devastating second novel. The use of insanity to jumpstart a tale of tragedy—and to embolden a cowed population to challenge the power of their oppressor—is an early indicator of the deftness of what is to follow. This new book is a continent and a world away from Mbue’s award-winning debut...graver, more intensely politic, and piercing at a deeper level ... This clear, simple-seeming story of heartbreak, injustice and anger calls to mind other classics of the genre ... Epic wrongs are challenged with soft insight, encouraged by idealism, tempered by experience. This is didactic territory, suffused with humanity, in which novels invite an irresistible response in the face of sequential wrong inflicted on the innocent.
Mbue...paints a gripping and nuanced picture of resistance ... The book’s narrative device, a chorus of voices, sometimes stalls the linear march of the story as each narrator tells a similar tale of difficult circumstances, barely pushing the plot forward. This reflectiveness emphasizes the universal ring to the villagers’ epic battle, and the outcomes are tragically familiar. Mbue’s novel offers proof that capitalism is just colonialism masquerading as a different avatar.
Written in a no-frills yet piercing prose style, How Beautiful We Were is an account — tragic, wrenching, and at times exasperatingly documentary-like — of one village’s struggle against the avarice of an American oil company ... Mbue handles all this artfully, conscripting one narrative to fill in another’s gaps, and in the process fashions a multifarious yet interconnected story ... For all its richness, this story doesn’t hold enough material to pad out 40 years. As a result, Mbue glides over lengthy periods of time [...] with blithe disregard for such a tack’s disorienting effect on the reader ... When Thula returns to Kosawa, however, Mbue reignites the story ... aside from Mbue’s impressive ability to transmute news items about environmental degradation into harrowing personal stories, “How Beautiful We Were” sets the stage for a test, one whose results will prove most instructive. After all, the author’s fictional characters may engender sympathy on your part and mine, but will their real-world counterparts receive tangible support from us?
...expansive ... Though a more sensationalized take on the topic might use this incident as its climax, Mbue's nuanced and realistic approach positions it as one skirmish presaging decades of struggle ... Told through the first-person viewpoints of multiple villagers, as well as the chorus of Thula's contemporaries, How Beautiful We Were captures the small yet universal dramas wrought by love, birth and death ... This epic and empathetic saga shines a truthful albeit unflattering light on globalization.
... an epic chronicle of lives played out under the shadow of this question. The narrative appears in long chapters told by individual villagers and a chorus of children, who speak in a roomy third-person plural ... Mbue wisely avoids any prescriptive authorial claims about [what] is most ethical ... What might have become a tidy blueprint for social resistance—complete with the 'happy ending' those journalists raised—instead evolves into something more wounded, and less certain: an exacting account of what survives in the face of justice deferred. Even as Kosawa grows uninhabitable—too contaminated, too dangerous—there are still villagers who ask, as they always have: 'What do we do now?'
... sweeping ... Heavy on narration and too light on the engaging dialogue that animated Mbue's first novel, the plot begins with a big bang and then unfolds, sometimes disjointedly, at a snail's pace, tragedies piling up ... As with her debut novel in which the American dream is cruelly upended, Mbue rejects the happier ending, replacing it with a biting dose of reality. Here, in her confident, rather unadorned style, she has struck a most somber note on the future. These days, it is a note that feels all too familiar.
The parts narrated as a chorus by Thula, the story’s heroine, and her contemporaries collectively as 'children' give us a heartbreaking insight into a childhood marred by toxic fumes, chronic illnesses and a high mortality rate. Thula’s narration effectively portrays a blighted childhood which became the new normal for her and her friends ... Mbue renders in poignant detail how trauma manifests differently for each individual ... Through an array of voices, we get a multifaceted view of the many lives impacted by this environmental carnage. A downside of recounting the story from a multitude of perspectives is that it hampers the momentum. The reminiscing of various characters and abrupt jumps in the timeline result in a meandering plot which could have been more tautly edited. As it stands, this environmental saga is a stirring portrayal of the reverberations of the psychological and generational trauma endured by entire generations due to corporate greed.
... ambitious ... A book this ambitious is bound to have missteps. Thula’s years in America are related largely through secondhand stories. Readers don’t see her transformation directly, which renders the painful lessons she learns less profound. And a long middle section told by Thula’s grandmother only repeats events better dramatized elsewhere ... But much of How Beautiful We Were is superb. The influence of the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o is evident, yet Mbue has her own distinct voice. It’s an impassioned one that grows stronger as the novel builds to its heartbreaking conclusion.
This complexity is handled deftly and, as the story unfolds, the life of a village and its values are revealed ... a masterful piece of storytelling with multiple storylines crisscrossing the central tale. Ms. Mbue’s use of several principal narrators spread over four decades of time could easily have turned into an incomprehensible jumble, but her steady hand does not allow that to happen while it does require the full attention of the reader ... Not only does this novel tell the story of a village and its people, but it addresses any number of contemporary issues such as globalism, environmental destruction, feminism, and the survival of traditional languages and cultures.
[A] stirring, decades-spanning portrait of an African village striking back against environmental exploitation ... With a kaleidoscope of perspectives, Mbue lyrically charts a culture in the midst of change, and poses ethical questions about the resisters’ complex set of motives ... This ruminative environmental justice elegy fills a broad canvas, but falls just short of being a masterpiece.
In this persuasive novel, Thula is a powerful if ultimately doomed heroine, and Mbue makes it clear that Goliath will always defeat David in a postcolonial society ruled by greed, corruption, and untrammeled capitalism.
Among the many virtues of Mbue’s novel is the way it uses an ecological nightmare to frame a vivid and stirring picture of human beings’ asserting their value to the world, whether the world cares about them or not. A fierce, up-to-the-minute novel that makes you sad enough to grieve and angry enough to fight back.