How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

I read this book because I had chosen Behold the Dreamers for a new book club that I have joined and whilst everyone was polite, they obviously didn’t like the book. At the end of the conversation, we discussed what we would like to see Mbue doing in her second book in terms of writing. There were three things:

  • More description using language to create images
  • developing relationships between characters, and
  • not so one-paced.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with all of these but it was a very interesting discussion. So, what is the latest book about?

How Beautiful We Were tells a story of a town in Cameroon called Kosawa (imaginary but probably based on Mbue’s hometown of Limbe) and the impact that an oil company has on it. As usual, they were promised the earth but all they got was poisoned soil, leaks from the pipes, polluted rainfall and then their children start to die. There are constant meetings with the company who promise more or who say their hands are tied by the lawyers in America. The trustingness and the naivity of the people in the village is quite heart-breaking until the madman of the village, Konga, stands up to the leaders from the company and things start to change.

Whilst I was reading, the book started to feel like a chain reaction spreading over generations – an American company moves in because their is oil nearby the village. Promise are made and broken, people become ill and die, a delegation is sent to Bezam to complain and not all come back, and then Konga takes away the car of the leaders from the company. The village then kidnap the three men but one is ill and dies and the village leader is shown to be corrupted by the company.

Soldiers are sent to the village and massacre men, women and children in retaliation but a newspaper report is sent to America because the oil company is American, and money is collected to support the village. As part of this support, some of village children are sent to the school in the nearest town – and this is the start of the people leaving the village. This then leads to one girl, Thula, being sponsored to go to school in America where she sends letters back encouraging her friends to take action as she is across America. The fivefriends start to set places on fire and then eventually buy guns with her money. And so it escalates until people are killed, the village empties and unrest is stamped on in the most brutal manner. In two generations, a community that tolerated all has been destroyed by a corrupt Presidency, His Excellency, and a global company who does not take care.

The writing was more detailed and the use of imagery was stronger in this book

When we began to wobble and stagger, tumbling and snapping like feeble little branches, they told us it would soon be over, that we would all be well in no time.


It isn’t necessarily always the use of adjectives in the imagery, nor is it used to describe the place. The book reads like an African myth or fable, written in the present tense without going into long descriptions of the place and relationships, although the mother and child relationships in several instances is depicted well. It feels like a saga and so events are told rather than diving in deeply to parts such as relationships and exploring them in detail.

I do think the writing in this book has improved. It flows smoothly and raises the idea of the impact that America can have on countries far away to service their needs. If taken in conjunction with Behold the Dreamers, it is clear that America takes and then doesn’t give back to the people of the countries they are destroying. In fact, dreamers is the theme that runs through the two books alongside America’s impact on people. I feel now like I will once again need to read her next book and see how that has moved on in terms of writing.

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