How Beautiful We Were

Random. Jun. 2020. 384p. ISBN 9780593132425. $28. F
Set in Kosawa, a rural village in an unnamed African country, this second novel by Mbue (after Behold the Dreamers) opens in 1980 at an assembly where the locals address their grievances to Pexton, the American oil company whose drilling has been poisoning their land and water, killing their children, and destroying their way of life. After decades of inaction and broken promises by Pexton, the only one willing to speak truth to power in this topsy-turvy world is the village madman, who kidnaps the company representatives, setting in motion years-long cycles of hope and despair. The novel moves between a first-person plural (a “we” consisting of the children of the village) and narration by a village girl named Thula and her various relatives. With the assistance of an aid organization, the highly independent and intelligent Thula is sent to college in New York, where she becomes an eager student of revolutionary movements.
VERDICT In this persuasive novel, Thula is a powerful if ultimately doomed heroine, and Mbue makes it clear that Goliath will always defeat David in a postcolonial society ruled by greed, corruption, and untrammeled capitalism.

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