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Steph Cha

The American Dream is persistent. Despite rampant income inequality, decreased social mobility and resistance to immigration, the founding myth of freedom and opportunity for one and all still comforts American citizens, and lures seekers from across borders and overseas.

In her debut novel Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue performs an in-depth audit of The Dream through the experiences of one industrious immigrant couple caught in the tumult of the 2008 financial crisis.

Jende and Neni Jonga are recent arrivals from Limbe, Cameroon, living in a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment in Harlem with their young son Liomi. Their immigration status is tenuous — Neni has a student visa, while Jende’s somewhat dubious asylum application is pending — and the threat of deportation casts a long shadow over their lives.

But despite their humble, unstable circumstances, the Jongas are determined and optimistic, confident of the bright future just beyond the next hurdle in their new country. “If she were a citizen, (Neni) would be a pharmacist in no more than five years. A pharmacist with a nice SUV and a home in Yonkers or Mount Vernon or maybe even New Rochelle.”

When Jende lands a salaried job as a chauffeur for Lehman Brothers senior executive Clark Edwards, he and Neni rejoice (“Papa God, oh! I’m dancing right now, Jends. I’m doing gymnastics, oh!”). After ...

The American Dream is persistent. Despite rampant income inequality, decreased social mobility and resistance to immigration, the founding myth of freedom and opportunity for one and all still comforts American citizens, and lures seekers from across borders and overseas.

In her debut novel Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue performs an in-depth audit of The Dream through the experiences of one industrious immigrant couple caught in the tumult of the 2008 financial crisis.

Jende and Neni Jonga are recent arrivals from Limbe, Cameroon, living in a cockroach-infested one-bedroom apartment in Harlem with their young son Liomi. Their immigration status is tenuous — Neni has a student visa, while Jende’s somewhat dubious asylum application is pending — and the threat of deportation casts a long shadow over their lives.

But despite their humble, unstable circumstances, the Jongas are determined and optimistic, confident of the bright future just beyond the next hurdle in their new country. “If she were a citizen, (Neni) would be a pharmacist in no more than five years. A pharmacist with a nice SUV and a home in Yonkers or Mount Vernon or maybe even New Rochelle.”

When Jende lands a salaried job as a chauffeur for Lehman Brothers senior executive Clark Edwards, he and Neni rejoice (“Papa God, oh! I’m dancing right now, Jends. I’m doing gymnastics, oh!”). After years working as a dishwasher and livery cabdriver, Jende appears to be laying claim to The Dream.

Jende drives for the whole Edwards family — Clark, his wife Cindy, their sons Vince and Mighty — and this daily proximity gives him an intimate view of their various affairs. He overhears troubling conversations between Clark and his Lehman cohorts; Cindy fighting with Clark and calling her girlfriends. He develops a rapport with his employers, enough so that when Cindy needs a temporary housekeeper for the Edwards summer home in the Hamptons, she offers the job to Neni. Neni grows close to young Mighty, whom she often babysits in his parents’ absence, and forms a strange, volatile bond with Cindy when she finds her employer in compromised circumstances.

The Jongas discover that even the wealthy, successful Edwardses are plagued with suffering. When Lehman collapses, both families — along with the rest of the country — are thrown into turmoil. But while the Jongas’ hardships belongs to the Jongas alone, the Edwards family problems impact their employees in harsh and unexpected ways. “I am tired of people wanting me to care about them more than I care about myself and my family,” says a frustrated Neni.

There’s a Pollyanna cheer to the first half of the book — immense gratitude to wealthy employers, boundless love for America — and though this falls away as brutal realities set in, the novel’s best elements remain in place: Mbue’s vivacious brand of humor and her enduring empathy for even her most repulsive characters.

Even as Behold the Dreamers takes some dark, vicious turns, it never feels cheaply cynical, grounded as it is in the problems of well-imagined characters who try, through whatever means possible, to protect their families and better their lives.

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