Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, this novel tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by a large and powerful American oil company. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight the American corporation—but doing so will come at a steep price.
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.