Suppose your government leased your property to an oil company. That it did so without your permission. That the company’s drilling poisoned your children, your pets, your trees, and your garden. What would you do?
Fortunately, we Westerners have laws to protect us from such outrages. The people of Kosawa, a fictional village in Africa, are powerless against an autocratic government that has sold them out to Pexton, an American oil company whose operations have been killing their people and ruining their land for generations.
Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, How Beautiful We Were, forces us to see ourselves through the eyes of a gentle people helplessly watching their children die from pollution, while Pexton corrupts the village chief and their neighbors with offers of prosperity in return for their cooperation.
Exploitation of the weak by the strong is an ancient tale. This one unfolds in the accounts of various citizens who cherish one another and struggle to maintain cultural traditions amidst grief and despair. Mbue seizes our attention from the opening page as the villagers, encouraged by a local madman, finally take action to save themselves, only to increase their peril.
I love the way Mbue grows her characters from children to parents to grandparents, through the eyes of the other villagers. As she did so compelling in her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, Mbue develops her theme through the eyes of a people naïve and doubtful of assurances from their government and Pexton officials. Predictably, the haves of this world seek to buy their way out of trouble, at the expense of the have-nots.
The nobility of the Kosawans in the face of disaster made me ashamed to be an American, as the author obviously intended.
I have deducted one star from my rating of this book only because of numerous sexual references which tarnished an otherwise superb effort.