Review by Leila Green
It is impossible to talk at length about this book without spoiling the ending, which I really do not want to do. This is a solid and spirited debut novel about a Cameroonian couple's efforts to make their "American Dream" come true in Recession-era New York City. They move to the city with stars in their eyes, but must soon confront the harsh realities of adjusting to American culture and price-tags. It is not long before they learn that the Dream is not necessarily a nightmare, but something more akin to, well, being awake.
Stylistically, I found the pacing to be quite slow. I skimmed through many sections that were stuffed with unnecessary details or needlessly flushed out conversations. But although slow, the story was a treat to follow. I enjoyed how Mbue cleverly wove the two families together. But I did not enjoy how much focus was put on making the white Edwards family seem more "human." I also did not enjoy how uncritically Neni's love for serving and appeasing whites was written. This book had its moments, but it was mostly very realistic, which I appreciated. What I liked most was the glimpse it gave to the harsh realities of working class immigrant life in NYC.
Overall, I'd recommend reading this book not just in the context of "immigration" but also in the context of dreaming. It made me wonder how to discern between a legitimate dream and a fleeting goal. It made me consider my own dreams, and if they're just image-based fantasies or real, attainable visions. Lastly, I connected with this book on a personal level because I have just experienced something very similar to the Jonga family: I had to reexamine a dream of mine. I thought it was what I really wanted, but it turns out I was mostly just attracted to the idea of it. I was clinging so tightly to this idea of what I thought I wanted—what I thought would be best for me—that I had convinced myself that it was the only way I could be successful in life. Reading Behold the Dreamers made me see that sometimes abandoning a "dream" invites the possibility for other realities—things more life-giving and true to who we are. 3/5 stars ⭐️⭐️⭐️