How does America look through the eyes of those who didn’t grow up in it? To the immigrants of Imbolo Mbue’s first novel, it’s the Biblical land God promised the Israelites, flowing with milk and honey. Though poor and struggling, Jende and Neni Jonga are thrilled to live in a country filled with opportunities they would never find back home in their village of Limbe, Cameroon.
A bright future awaits the couple and their two children, if only they can navigate the rocky path to American citizenship. Jende gets a job chauffeuring Clark Edwards, a wealthy Lehman Brothers executive. Neni works as a home health aide while studying to become a pharmacist. Working sixteen-hour days and sharing an apartment with cockroaches cannot dispel their joy over their good fortune.
Alas, even America’s elite class has its own problems that wealth can’t solve. Clark and his wife Cindy have a strained marriage that’s growing worse under the approaching 2008 financial crisis. When it comes crashing down on Clark, the fallout brings disaster on the Jongas as well.
Although the reader can foresee what’s coming, the book offers a window into the daily plight of immigrants, helping us appreciate why so many humble themselves to live in circumstances most Americans would find repugnant. Poverty in America is far superior to that of Cameroon. Even when their dream life turns sour, Jende and Neni cling to what they have left.
The novel is also a window into African culture. Neni serves her family delicacies like pepper soup with cow feet and chicken gizzards. Palm wine, plantains and puff-puff (fried dough) are staples of their diet. Back home, Neni’s family was considered wealthy because they lived in a brick house with tiled floors, electrical appliances and running water. Jende wasn’t so blessed. Neni’s father had him imprisoned because he didn’t consider him good enough for his daughter.
The Jongas cultivate a servile demeanor in order to fit into American society. The façade is especially difficult for Neni when she finds herself surrounded by white customers at a cocktail bar. “Nothing shamed her more than black people embarrassing themselves in front of white people by behaving the way white people expect them to behave.”
Mbue, herself a native of the village that Jende and Neni have fled, introduces characters who are grateful just to have a job, perhaps earn a college education and get a grip on the career ladder. Yet despite their diligence, the threat of deportation looms over the couple, ultimately forcing them to take actions they would otherwise never have considered.
I give this novel only four stars out of five because of its frequent scatological language. Otherwise, I recommend it enthusiastically.