A review of How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
There is a question put by one of the main characters – a child – in Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were:‘how would I have known that rivers were not ordinarily covered with oil and toxic waste?’ It is perhaps the central question of this heartfelt novel, which is in many ways a desperate plea for us to open our eyes and see things as they are – or soon could be. Because just as Thula and her friends understand rivers to be polluted, bodies of water that bring death rather than life to the villages they flow through, so too do many of us (most of Mbue’s readers, perhaps) imagine them as clear-flowing, health-giving natural features, the kind of thing we long to spend time beside rather than fearing. That one word can mean two so very different things – and that all too often we allow our understanding of the world to be coloured only by what we can see – is the tenet on which Mbue has founded her novel, the rallying cry with which she seeks to move her readers to change their behaviour.
Set in the fictional village of Kosawa, in an African country ruled by an inhumane dictator known only as His Excellency, How Beautiful We Were follows several generations living in the shadow of an oil strike. Having refused to leave their ancestral homes, the villagers’ lands are gradually being encroached on by Pexton, an American company that not only engages in nefarious practices but openly pollutes the surrounding earth, air and water. The novel opens in the 1980s with a tense community meeting: Pexton representatives are giving the villagers their usual empty reassurances when Konga, the ‘untouchable’ village madman, unexpectedly instigates a hostage-taking action that will have an untold impact on the entire population of Kosawa. Over the course of the novel, which is told from the perspectives of a group of village children and several members of a prominent family, we learn exactly what those consequences look like.
How Beautiful We Were spans forty years and, as such, Konga’s move leads to just about every outcome possible. Kosawa is afflicted by disease and massacre; receives visits from journalists, lawyers and reparations committees; sees one of its brightest children (Thula – the main character, if there can be said to be such a thing) sent off to study in America and return to lead a revolution; and buries many more residents, both adults and children. Despite the fact that the novel begins with the villagers taking matters into their own hands, attempting desperately to stop their children dying from poisoned air and water, the narrative is from the very beginning ‘drenched with an unrelenting, smothering form of despair’. Though at times we feel encouraged to cheer on various characters or celebrate the arrival of apparently sympathetic outside forces, Mbue is careful not to let us get too comfortable. Things, we sense, will not turn out all right.
Perhaps it was for this reason that I found this novel slightly hard to get on with, despite the fact that I admired the premise greatly and find Mbue to be an accomplished storyteller. From the start the novel is incredibly atmospheric, and it is the cultural and social details that make Kosawa come alive as a place: the healer twins who are born and die holding hands, the umbilical cord bundles that are the most treasured possession of each family. Yet for all the apparent joy Mbue has taken in creating this world for us, something about How Beautiful We Were fell a bit flat. The sense of despair is at times crushing – and unrelenting; in one of the later chapters, the stoic Thula’s younger brother Juba reveals himself to be just as money-grubbing as the civil servants we have by this time been taught to despise – and the catalogue of woes often overwhelming. Environmental pollution and child mortality are strong subjects, and Mbue places an additional focus on the subjugation of women. A very brief diversion into a story of child abuse, then, had the unfortunate effect of becoming almost too much, diluting not only itself but the rest of the narrative around it.
Another element of the novel that makes it hard to really get a hold on is the continually changing narrative perspective. While I usually enjoy alternating points of view, and am happy to cope with several, Mbue never revisits a character except for the collectively narrated chapters entitled ‘The Children’. Though this continual disengagement is surprisingly unjarring in a narrative sense – the plot is roughly linear, and the same slightly dreamy tone adopted by all the narrators – it did leave me feeling a faint sense of dissatisfaction, as though I had never managed to get under the skin of the novel. Though I felt deeply sympathetic towards the villagers of Kosawa and their plight, I never found myself truly caring for any of the characters.
I have my suspicions that Mbue has written intentionally this way. How Beautiful We Were reads a lot like a fairy tale – the original dark ones, in which children die unaccountably and good does not win out over evil – and the reserved, slightly arch prose style seems designed to keep the reader somehow at arm’s length. It is perhaps a warning: this story is not true, but an allegory; Kosawa not a real place, but the stand-in for countless villages across the world. We, the readers, are perhaps being lumped in with the Pexton representatives, people who tend to view bad things as just a story, a set of unfortunate events that is bound eventually to result in a happy ending. Perhaps this is what Mbue is driving towards; perhaps it is not. But whatever her intention, the novel certainly left me thinking – and this, certainly, is the best thing it could have done.
How Beautiful We Were is not dystopian ‘cli-fi’, but a narrative rooted in a very real world. For all its shortcomings, it is a bold and imaginative story that holds its readers firmly to account. In letting us in to the village of Kosawa, whose inhabitants may be fictional but who still love, dream and hurt in the same way as we do, it draws our attention towards the mistakes of the past and present, asking not if, but when we plan to do something about them.
This week I also had the pleasure of writing about translator Polly Barton’s extraordinary memoir, Fifty Sounds. Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions next week, it’s a beautiful meditation on life, love and language as identity that resonated on so many levels. My review for Lunate can be found here.