Book review: How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue

Imbolo Mbue’s tale of a small, rural community in a fictional African country taking on the might of a multinational oil company is necessary, powerful and achingly humane, writes Stuart Kelly

Imbolo Mbue PIC: Kiriko Sano

There is a class of novels – I would mention in particular The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and Wizard Of The Crow by Ngugi wa Thiongo – where the political and the mythological collide. Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were is certainly within this tradition, and indubitably understands it. Towards the end, one character talks of “a world where real turns surreal before my eyes”, a world which is vividly portrayed in both its magic and its realism. It combines resistant folklore with aggressive capitalism, and at its centre has significant absences.

The setting is a fictional village called Kosawa in a fictional African country. In Kosawa they still hunt porcupines and bushmeat, but their way of life is jeopardised by a company, Pexton, which has discovered oil on their land. The “their” is important. Is this the land of the ancestors and their belief they are children of the leopard with oaths sworn on knots of umbilical cords, or is it the corrupt government’s land, or is it the corporation’s resource? From the outset we know that the villagers are concerned that Pexton’s activities have poisoned the water and the soil; that there are crop failures and a high rate of infant mortality. The father of the central character, Thula, travels to the city to plead their case, and never returns.

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The novel has a fascinating structure. It opens with a kind of Greek chorus, using the first person plural. It then ranges through the voices of the young Thula, her uncle, her mother, her grandmother and her brother, each time interspersed with “the children.” Although it begins in the 1980s and ends in the present day, Mbue uses a clever “past future” tense; the chorus will refer to events yet to be narrated that they did not know about at the time. The flashpoint at the beginning is a village meeting with representatives from Pexton, which is disrupted by the local madman who reveals he has taken the officials’ car keys. It is not the only time that direct action seems to be the sole recourse.

How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue

Thula eventually will go and study in America, and it is no coincidence that her favourite reading matter includes her uncle’s copies of Fanon’s The Wretched Of The Earth, Friere’s The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed and The Communist Manifesto. She becomes further radicalised in the States, but fulfils her promise to return to Kosawa. After her opening monologue, Thula is more spoken about than speaking (though we do get her letters home, which seem rather too “plot-necessary” than convincing epistles).

The novel’s great virtue is in avoiding obvious dichotomies. I have always said that any book which denies complexity is a libel on reality, and Mbue certainly avoids that. It is not a simple fable about honest villagers and nefarious companies, and as the back-stories spiral out we have a very nuanced portrayal of colonialism (going back to the rubber plantations), slavery (with a fearful story about the other villagers who “wanted” to be taken), the decent men in bad places, the disappointment of national liberation turning into dictatorship. Thula is awarded a scholarship through the Restoration Movement, which could have been done as a mere satire on the white saviour complex, but is far more subtle, a description of a bureaucracy at loggerheads with bureaucracies; one which nevertheless affords an opportunity to Thula.

There are a few off-key notes. More than one section about sexuality, desire and abuse seem shoehorned in rather than intrinsic to the story. But these are surface infelicities compared to the power and grace of the book as a whole. When Thula learns about America polluting its own communities, she reflects “I thought I was in some bizarre dream in which America had revealed itself to be Kosawa. The stories were endless.” The need to maintain story links and rhymes across the different voices – “wouldn’t his days brim with resolve if he were to spend them making known the stories of the deliberately unheard?” or the haunting last line: “it’s as such moments that the children of our children come to us and say, please, Yaya, please, Big Papa, tell us a story”. How Beautiful We Were is necessary, powerful and achingly humane.

By chance the same week I read the science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control, an eerie story about Fatima, who becomes Sankofa, and because of a possibly alien artefact is known as the Adopted Child of Death in Ghana. Once she can control the energy which destroyed her village and fritzes all technology, she provides euthanasia. The slim book has a revenge plot, a city called RoboTown that bristles with surveillance and circles back to the beginning and the lost village. It features another brave but broken heroine, another vision of an “invaded” Africa and possible routes to redemption, and is certainly a book to seek out.

How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue, Canongate, £14.99

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