Jende Jonga is a dreamer. He has dreams for his own life, but more importantly, that of his family. And in Imbolo Mbue’s debut novel, he gets a glimpse of where dreams can lead you and realizes that perhaps reality is better.
Jende is from Cameroon (Limbe) and he arrives in New York City to make his way in the land of dreamers. After working hard for two years, his wife, Neni, and son, Liomi, join him. When the book opens they are all in the city and Jende is interviewing to work as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. He gets the job and is exposed to a different world as he drives members of the family around the city. Clark’s wife, Cindy, emerges as a complex and tragic character. Having been raised by a single mom in a dirt-poor household, she knows what she has and she wants to keep it. One son, in college, is almost stereotypic in his rejection of his father’s lifestyle, which, of course, supports him as he rejects it.
Working for the family, Jende sees the “one percent” in action. While they live the lavish lifestyle, their personal lives are falling apart. Clark is struggling to act professionally honest in the midst of the financial crisis meltdown of 2008 (and his company goes bankrupt), but at the same time, his personal dishonesty creates more of a barrier between him and his wife and sons. Although Mbue presents Jende as a confidant of Clark, he is really no more than a foil for Clark’s musings. Mbue attempts to create a stronger bond between the two, but it is primarily a utilitarian relationship for both of them.
Mirroring this is Neni and Cindy’s relationship, and they connect in their roles as mothers. But in a climactic scene between the two, Neni acts completely out of character. Mbue may want to show us the desperate act of a mother, but she instead shows the willingness of Neni to allow another person to be destroyed in order to advance her and her family’s dreams. Although she talks about the family, it is clear that Neni wants to stay in the U.S. for her own desires even more than that of her family. In many ways, she resembles the Clark family in how she uses other people to meet her personal goals. I don’t think Mbue was aiming for this, but it seems to be a logical connection.
The struggle of being able to stay in the U.S. is an undercurrent in the entire novel. Jende continues to work for and is always worried about citizenship, and reaches a point where he realizes all his work may fall short. While Jende starts to actively think that returning to Cameroon will be better for his family, Neni is using every method at her disposal to keep the family in New York. Jende has seen what the dream fulfilled looks like and realizes that dreams and reality are different. He is not a fatalist, but a realist who sees that his dreams of success may not lie in the direction he was heading. It is the age-old story that material success does not equate with happiness, and Jende’s dream is for happiness.
Mbue succeeds in showing the challenging life of the immigrant without losing hope. But she misses the opportunity to take us more into that existence as most of the action takes place in areas of wealth. We get glimpses of the Jonga’s family life outside of the Clark world, but not enough to get a fuller picture of their day to day struggles. Mbue can capture the reader as her writing style is inviting and the narrative flows. She draws us in and she just needs to focus on where she is taking us. In the end, this is a book worth reading and a writer worth watching. It is not a perfect novel, but it does give a glimpse into an existence most of us do not know.