“We should have known the end was near,” begins Imbolo Mbue’s sophomore novel, How Beautiful We Were. “How could we not have known? When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead. Then again, how could we have known when they didn’t want us to know?”
The “we” refers to the residents of Kosawa, a small, fictional village in an unnamed African country. The acid pouring from the sky and green rivers are just a few of the byproducts of drilling done by Pexton, an American oil conglomerate hellbent on milking Kosawa’s land for all it’s worth—regardless of the devastation it causes.
Like Mbue’s debut novel, Behold the Dreamers, How Beautiful We Were features those distinctly American hallmarks of corporate greed, American greed and colonialism. America isn’t the only villain, though. There’s also Kosawa’s government officials, who, paid off by Pexton, turn a blind eye to its destruction. It’s only when oil company representatives, sent to the village to quell fears, are taken hostage by a ground of villagers, led by the local madman, that any kind of change seems possible.
The multigenerational novel is told from a variety of perspectives, though two become the most thrilling: First is the collective “we” of the villagers who were children when the story begins. Second is Thula, a young girl who, though barely ten years old at the start of the novel, shows early signs of being a revolutionary.