“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.
Those activist tendencies are solidified when Thula moves to the United States for her education, returning to her hometown with a fiery need for retributions and reparations. It’s not that no one has offered to help Kosawa, it’s that the village’s residents are understandably wary of accepting assistance from American activists (there are no white saviors in this book). Of the oil company and the well-meaning American activists who offer help, an older resident of the village says, “Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same. No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.”
Though the majority of the book is profoundly unsettling, there are moments of lightness and humor. It’s also incredible to watch the children who narrate large swaths of the book grow up over the years, becoming parents and then grandparents telling stories of their own.
After all, it’s the stories we tell, Mbue seems to be saying, that allow our dreams and legacies to transcend generations—even when we're silenced.