Contemporary Fiction

How Beautiful We Were – Imbolo Mbue

7 June 2021
How Beautiful We Were Book Cover How Beautiful We Were
Imbolo Mbue
Random House
9 March 2021

"'We should have known the end was near.' So begins Imbolo Mbue's exquisite and devastating novel How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by a large and powerful American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean up and financial reparations to the villagers are made--and ignored. The country's government, led by a corrupt, brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight the American corporation. Doing so will come at a steep price. Told through multiple perspectives and centered around a fierce young girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary, Joy of the Oppressed is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghosts of colonialism, comes up against one village's quest for justice--and a young woman's willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people's freedom"--

This exceptional novel brings to life the impact of exploitation of natural resources in developing countries. It begins in the final decades of the 20th century and moves into the 21st. The resource is petroleum, and in this case, the companies extracting this mineral wealth are American. The country is unnamed, but the writer is from Cameroon, one of the world’s leading sources of crude oil.

When the American company Pexton arrives in the small fictional village of Kosowa, the inhabitants are led to believe that their lives are about to get better. Their children will have the possibility of getting education beyond the basic schooling offered in their locale. People start to talk about the possibility of owning cars, and having solidly built houses. Instead, over the next few years, their children begin to fall ill. Babies die soon after birth or don’t even live to be born. Something is poisoning the place where they live.

When the company comes to make an agreement for compensation, the village madman revolts against their offer. Some of the younger generation, mostly male, but one female, Thula, are inspired to fight back, and to not trust the company or its representatives. The village’s plight is documented by an American journalist, who gains some trust locally. The story of the suffering of the village at the hands of this corporation becomes world news. Money flows in to relieve their suffering. Despite this attention, as is true in real life, this is not enough to stop the nearly total degradation of the locality. Families move away to save the lives of their children, and the village shrinks in size.

This is one story of the kind of environmental destruction fueled, it can be argued, by environmental racism and classism. It is told through the eyes of the people who experience it. We see resistance to this exploitation but battling a huge American conglomeration is nearly impossible.
It portrays the hearts and souls of the people impacted in this kind of exploitation where those who live on top of these resources are expendable. It is a powerful indictment of the ravaging of poor countries that occurs to feed the unlimited appetites of powerful countries for more wealth and resources.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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