About the Book
Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, How Beautiful We Were tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an 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 brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest only. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. But their fight will come at a steep price, one which generation after generation will have to pay.
Told through the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula, How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold onto its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.
Format: Hardcover (368 pages) Publisher: Canongate
Publication date: 11th March 2021 Genre: Literary Fiction
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The story is told from multiple points of view, including a group of children, ‘age-mates’ born in the same year, who act rather like the Chorus in a Greek play. This structure allows the reader to see the story from a number of different perspectives, reflecting the varying experiences and attitudes of young and old, male and female. It also gave a sense of the oral storytelling tradition.
I was less a fan of the frequently shifting timelines meaning that the story goes back and forth in time. One moment a character is dead, the next moment they are still in prison. I confess I found this both confusing and distracting. I was grateful when I reached the section told from the point of view of Thula’s grandmother, Yaya, not just because it revealed the history of the injustices visited on the people of Kosawa over many generations – slavery, forced labour on rubber plantations, the destruction of their land by the construction of oil pipelines – but because it was narrated in a largely linear fashion, placing into some order the events featured in previous sections.
The book conveys a strong sense of the traditional beliefs and customs that form the backbone of life in the village. How its inhabitants see themselves as different from, even distrustful of, those who live in the towns; tribal and family ties being more important than nationality. The villagers of Kosawa gain strength from their belief that the spirits of their ancestors guide and protect them, as represented in the village anthem: “Sons of the leopard, daughters of the leopard, beware all who dare wrong us, never will our roar be silenced.”
The reader learns about what is a strongly patriarchal society, in which women’s role is largely confined to cooking, cleaning and child-rearing and women who lose their husbands are unable to remarry. ‘You can be alone, the men say to us. You’re a woman, you’re built to endure.’ However, it’s also a community that comes together to mark events such as births, the passage into manhood, marriages and deaths. Sadly, the village witnesses many of the latter.
The spirit of resistance is most clearly represented by Thula who is described as having ever since the day she was born ‘wanted what she wanted’. I’m always drawn to characters who demonstrate a love of books and reading so it’s no surprise I warmed to Thula for whom, as her mother Sahel observes, books become ‘her pillow and her blanket, her plate of food and the water that quenched her thirst’. Thula’s education takes her away, first from her village, and then from her country to America. However, Kosawa and its plight remains forever in her thoughts, and in her heart. She becomes both an enabler and catalyst for action against the oil company, Pexton, and later a figurehead for much wider change.
One of the last sections of the book, narrated from the point of view of Thula’s brother, Juba, was less compelling than I’d hoped. For me, it got rather bogged down in the details of negotiations, court cases and preparations for the campaign led by Thula. It also included a brief return to the back and forth in time that I’ve mentioned earlier, and there were some parts I felt were redundant.
Although I may have had some reservations about the structure and pace of the book, I had no doubts about the quality of the writing. If you can get past what, for me, was the book’s rather convoluted structure – and I’m conscious other readers may find it imaginative rather than distracting – How Beautiful We Were is a powerful story about the fight against injustice, corruption and environmental destruction.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley.
In three words: Powerful, emotional, authentic
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About the Author
Imbolo Mbue is the author of the New York Times bestseller Behold the Dreamers, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. The novel has been translated into eleven languages, adapted into an opera and a stage play, and optioned for a mini-series. A native of Limbe, Cameroon, and a graduate of Rutgers and Columbia Universities, Mbue lives in New York. (Photo credit: Goodreads author page)