A fearless young woman from a small African village starts a revolution against an American oil company in this sweeping, inspiring novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Behold the Dreamers.
ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, People • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, The Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Ms. magazine, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews
“Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel’s end, has it firmly held in her hand.”—NPR
We should have known the end was near. So begins Imbolo Mbue’s powerful second novel, How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells of a people living in fear amid environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of cleanup and financial reparations to the villagers are made—and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interests. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. Their struggle will last for decades and come at a steep price.
Told from the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary, How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold on to its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
This powerful novel highlights how vital—and tenuous—the connections between people and their natural surroundings can be. In the fictional African village of Kosawa, an oil company’s drilling operations are poisoning the water and killing children. The struggle to survive amidst the utter environmental degradation has made the people of Kosawa feel powerless, but a young girl named Thula is undeterred. Told through the eyes of Thula’s family, the second novel by Imbolo Mbue (author of Behold the Dreamers) is a hard-hitting drama about the victims of corporate greed. We loved Thula as a character, especially her rebellious spirit and voracious love of reading. Ultimately, How Beautiful We Were is a multigenerational story of family and community ties—and how those bonds can give us the power to do the seemingly impossible.
Mbue follows up her PEN/Faulkner-winning Behold the Dreamers with a stirring, decades-spanning portrait of an African village striking back against environmental exploitation. In the 1980s in the fictional village of Kosawa, children are dying, poisoned by American oil company Pexton's leaking pipelines. One small act of sabotage a villager steals a couple of Pexton representatives' car keys spurs Kosawa's residents to kidnap their corrupt village headman and the two oilmen whose keys were stolen, and triggers a chain reaction of tiny revolutions that reverberate for generations through transatlantic radicalization and violence in Kosawa, told through the fortunes and failures of Thula Nangi and her family. Thula's father, Malabo Nangi, vanished in the capital petitioning for government intervention; her uncle Bongo is spurred to seek foreign aid after Malabo disappears; and Thula becomes a charismatic revolutionary. 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. While a series of repeated reminiscences from various characters and explicit moral lessons stall the momentum, Mbue's portrayal of Kosawa's disintegration is nevertheless heartbreaking. This ruminative environmental justice elegy fills a broad canvas, but falls just short of being a masterpiece.
If you have read “Behold the Dreamers” you know how talented Imbol Mbue is. After reading this one, you will realize that she is a singular talent amongst writers. With “How Beautiful We Were” she has crafted an originally heartbreaking tale that rings as true as time and stirs echoes of “Things Fall Apart” by Achebe. In this effort, Imbolo Mbue’s mastery as a writer is shown off in the well executed multi-narrative style. Employing a wide array of voices, perspectives, and lived experiences around the same events.
This approach illuminates every angle of the story, leaving no dark corners unlit but maintaining a sense of mystery at what could have been. What goes unsaid is the impacts to the people and the destiny of their village. What gets spoken loudly is the broad line between youthful idealism and cruel reality. Our characters struggles underscore the fragility of western democratic principles. Their voices and views are used to expound upon the anti and pro-capitalist experiences.
Well teased out threads tie it all together and make this a philosophical masterpiece. One of them being how Mbue highlights that along with Capitalism, the west exports suffering, at least in how the “prosperity” promised is delivered. Another theme circles around who controls the narrative and what truths live on after the dust settles. Lastly, Mbue repeatedly takes on the definition of what is freedom and who has it. As she demonstrates, even the most powerful live in a sort of prison of their own making. A brilliant read and recommended.
The village of Kosawa went through many twists and turns. Thula’s determination for her village and grit to never give up is inspiring. I found myself screaming at the characters to never give up. At one point I realized there was nothing they could do, and suddenly things were getting worse. I would definitely recommend this to a friend. It’s a quick read but also hits on a lot of the things that are probably still happening today.