How Beautiful We Were

“My mother always cautioned me against dwelling on the past and the future. What happened will never unhappen, she liked to say; what is to happen will happen—better you focus on what’s happening in front of you.”

– Imbolo Mbue 

How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue 
360 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Published by Random House, 2021
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Indiana 

Re-readability: I might come back to this one.


Synopsis from publisher:

“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.

Review: 

Mbue’s writing is as sharp as ever, though the plot is not for the faint of heart. From the moment the story picks up, in a meeting with the villagers of Kosawa and representatives from Pexton, we see the deaths of children and the destruction of the villagers’ land. We see the rebellious, and seemingly righteous actions of a few cause immense pain and tragedy for many. 

It starts out as a battle between a small village and a large, American corporation, and it remains that to a degree. However, Mbue goes deeper, focusing on how even people who wanted to fight against the corporation and the government can become corrupted and culpable in its destruction. 

Each chapter is told from alternating perspectives, mostly focused on the family of Sahel Nangi, and “The Children” in the village. This format helps to give readers a wider view of the plot, though I did struggle with the timeline occasionally because certain characters delve into their past and then jump back to the present. 

Throughout the book, Mbue explores the juxtaposition of colonialism and capitalism. It’s perhaps most evident in the chapter told from the perspective of Juba, Sahel’s son and Thula’s sister. After witnessing so much destruction in his youth, he stops believing in Thula’s revolutionary ideas and gets a job with the government, thinking he can change things from the inside. He quickly finds out that he won’t be a catalyst but a cog, a lucrative cog with the option to take money from various public funds whenever he’d like. 

How Beautiful We Were is a weighty work and contemplative work is a study in empathy that will stick with you well after the last page. 

Has anyone else read this one? What did you think?

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