This 2016 debut novel, raved over by Oprah, won the Pen/Faulkner award, and is the first in my list of 20 books for summer reading this year.
It’s towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, and Jende and his wife Neni are trying to make a life for their family in New York, in the land of opportunity, far from their home in Linde, Cameroon. While waiting for his asylum application to be processed, Jende miraculously lands a dream job as a chauffeur for Clark, a senior executive with Lehman Brothers, and his family. Neni, meanwhile, is an international student, training to become a pharmacist.
We know, of course, that Lehman Brothers are doomed, and we know that the crash is coming, but the novel’s cast are blissfully ignorant, even if there are more than a few urgent, muttered calls between Clark and other executives in the back of his limo.
The novel sensitively portrays the hopes and dreams of economic migrants (so vilified by the UK Government and Priti Patel, who is herself so monstrous that she almost veers into self-caricature). All the characters are flawed and all deserve our empathy – it’s not a straight ‘good immigrants vs evil capitalists with a false sense of entitlement’ narrative.
As Jende and Neni’s lives become increasingly intertwined with the lives of Clark and his glamorous, brittle wife Cindy, the novel becomes quite a page-turner. However, I did find the narrative lost its way a bit after the economic crash, and that edge of the seat momentum completely dissipated. And Cindy could feel a bit of a cliché. Overall though, this is a really enjoyable and sometimes enlightening read.
Imbolo Mbue is herself a former resident of Limbe, Cameroon, who has subsequently made her home in New York, so perhaps her own experiences are what make both Limbe and New York feel so vividly realised.
I requested this book from the library, and one disappointing thing really is that from the “BLA” sticker on the outside I can see it is shelved in a “Black Fiction” section of the library, which feels rather like segregation – I knew I wanted to seek this particular book out, but another reader, browsing the main fiction shelves, would never have found it, denying it the wide readership it really deserves.