America – the land of dreams and unlimited possibilities- But only if you have the right papers. Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon now living in Harlem, does not have them yet, but is cousin and his lawyer are optimistic, everything will turn out fine for him and his wife Neni who also came to New York to get an education to become a pharmacist. When he gets the chance to work as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers, Jende seems to have reached all he ever dreamt of: his income is good, the can put aside a lot of money for a better future and his boos appreciates his discretion and good work. The Jonga family and the Edwards seem to get closer, Neni can help out Cindy in the Hamptons and thus earn some extra money, the kids also like Jende a lot. When the crisis hits Wall Street, Jende and Neni cannot immediately see that this will also affect their life, but as the Edwards struggle more and more, also the couple from Cameroon has to re-adjust their dreams and future plans.
One of the most talk about novels this summer can fulfil all the promises. A wonderful piece of art which can hardly be summarized in a couple of words. Imbolo Mbue does not only tell the story of the modern American Dream. Of course, Jende and Neni do have some wrong ideas of what awaits them in the USA – but: everything is better than their paternalistic home country where Jende as a member of the wrong family can never make a career and where Neni’s options in life as a woman are clearly limited. They are the role model of the immigrant: they work hard, they are decent and obedient, they never ask for anything they are not entitled to and their high moral standards keep them from making the wrong choices. However, this is just the surface of the story.
What struck me most were two aspects the author narrates casually: the way the relationship of Jende and Neni changes when their situation gets more complicated and stressful. First, we get to know Jende as a man who keeps up the Carmeroon morale and ideals but he treats Neni as his equal, his love for her grants her a very different position from what it would have been like in Africa. When his situation deteriorates and he understands that he will never be able to achieve his aims, he falls back into macho patterns and treats his wife like an inferior who is not allowed to make decisions and whom he even beats at a moment of highest despair. You can go to another country, but there are things you can never get rid of. The second aspect also affected Neni: when she talks to her dean about support for a scholarship and he tells her that she is never going to be a pharmacist, I first hated him because he destroys her dreams. However, he is not completely wrong and it does make sense to make people see reality: the American Dream will not be fulfilled for everyone.
Apart from the richness of the content – there would have been so much more to mention: the collapse of the Edwards family, community structures in Harlem, the treatment of black people in America etc. – Imbolo Mbue has a wonderful voice which makes you really enjoy the novel. She finds the right words to narrate her story which deserves all the praise it has received.