Book of the Month: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Imbue

Hello and welcome to the book of this month! I have slacked off on this blog these past few weeks and want to get back in the groove of things. Needless to say, I LOVED the book of this month. From the same author who brought us Behold the Dreamers, the book of this month is called How Beautiful We Were, and that past tense in the title reveals more than you can imagine. New York Times described this book as "sweeping and quietly devastating" and I couldn't agree more  This is not a feel good story at all. Anyway, let's get into it. 

"We should have known the end was near..."

The book tells  the story of what happens when a small fictional village in Africa (yes, the author was this unspecific) called Kosawa decides to fight against  an American oil company that had been polluting their land for many years. It follows a group of children who were born in the village, but especially draws the focus on one of those kids, a girl named Thula who ultimately leads the revolution and resistance. When the story starts,  the village is very polluted, the rivers are covered in toxic waste, the air is dirty, the kids are getting sick and dying. In response, the oil company just resorts to false promises that things will get better but things aren't getting better and kids continue to drop like flies. So, the villagers decide to take matters into their own hands, and when the story starts the children are watching their parents fight the oil company and over time, the fight becomes theirs and they take over. The story unfolds from the perspective of "The Children'', a group of about seven kids and the family of one of them, Thula, who becomes and becomes the leader of the movement to bring the company to justice.

First of all, SIGH.

This book is powerful, and heavy, but extremely masterful. Mbue wields her pen to tell a story of injustice and greed and the kind of oppression that happens because our world will always choose the side of corporations over ordinary people. All of this happens against the backdrop of a legacy of colonialism, incompetent governments, and dictatorship. I did say it was heavy, didn't I? It's funny that this book was a book club at work and I'm not even sure we knew what we were getting into because we our work is centered around research on violence and social movements and to some extent, injustice, so reading this at the end of the work day was so much for us that while we enjoyed it, we also decided to not pick anything this heavy again. 

"I asked him which he thought was worse...the madmen who created this farce of a nation or the servant who took over the task of making sure it never fell apart." - Yaya Thangi

When the book first starts, you are fired up, excited, and just all around happy to see the "small guy" fight back so ferociously. As you continue along, you will find what most freedom fighters, revolutionaries, and movement leaders must already know: freedom and justice are costly. Progress is slow and sometimes painful. And victory, victory can be so nuanced, it ends up making no sense. There are many emotions in this book and some of it will move you to tears. At some point, I was just so tired of the injustice and how often it paralleled this real world that I had to put the book down. Like I said, this was read with my colleagues at work and they are researchers like me, and one thing we all agreed on was that it read like a really detailed qualitative research (like an in-depth interview). As Mbue depicts all these important themes, she manages to effortlessly remove herself from the narrative. She doesn't ever pick a side nor does she push any single point of view or agenda. She just lays it all out there and lets you make a decision for yourself. It's so good, it's almost sociopathic haha. No, I'm kidding. It's astute!

Now on to what I didn't like. After you're about three quarters into the book, it begins to drag. It becomes really slow and because like I said, it is already quite depressing, you almost want to drop it. In the sense that progress is slow, that is realistic. But in terms of reading a book, hmmph not so much. That last part of the book just lacked something I can't quite explain. It is possible Mbue is just so brilliant a writer that it all went over my head. I am willing to acknowledge that. Also, each chapter alternated points of view: The Children, Thula, Bongo, Yaya etc. This is NOT an easy feat to achieve  but I realized every voice felt like the author's voice instead of the voice/personality of each narrator. Speaking of language and voice and personality, I felt like the language in some parts didn't quite fit the characters. Pray tell, how can an uneducated grandmother from a small village devoid of technology have such a fancy vocabulary? Interestingly, there is barely any dialogue in this book and that's not a bad thing. In fact, given how much it felt like we were with the villagers, it's quite brilliant to pull that off with so little dialogue among the characters. These are all trivial details in comparison to the great writing in this book, of course.

One final thing, when I finished this book, I went online to read other people's thoughts. It was devastating to see someone on Goodreads say since a few dates were mentioned, she suspected that the book was real and that pushed her to do some research and find that "with some research, I discovered that oil companies have indeed polluted the groundwater in Africa." I cannot possibly tell you how heartbreaking this is.  To live in a world where you are so oblivious of such an obvious injustice is such a privilege but also so...pathetic. Do better people. 

In so many ways, this book is political without being political. It is a book that can be easily assigned as a reading in a Social Movements class. 

With all that has been said, this is a phenomenal book. I really hope you read it. If for nothing, to remind yourself of all the injustice in this world and to commit to doing better whenever you can.



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