“How Beautiful We Are” by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were

Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: March 9, 2021

Imbolo Mbue is a formidable storyteller. Gripping from the first sentence to the last, “How Beautiful We Were” is a novel detailing decades of suffering endured by families in a small fictional African village where an American oil company has arrived ready to drill. (Sounds familiar right)? The oil company is in cahoots with their corrupt dictator. Pipeline spills.  Children die. This multi-generational novel is told through the eyes of the village children while they are still children, as teens, and finally as adults. Different characters at different stages of their life narrate.  However, the storyline is not linear, and slow paced, which can confuse the reader. As the narrators change, the reader learns something new from the perspective of each of them. You will meet a grandmother who was a child herself when the Americans came. She has memories of life before there was an oil company. Her narrations are very different from, Sahel’s, her daughter-in-law.

The village has someone who they appropriately call, the madman. Through him, the author takes an opportunity to pronounce the unfairness to the village by the soldiers. The madman unintentionally pushes the soldiers too far. Blood is spilled. The author ensures that the reader feels just how unsympathetic the government is towards its own people. When questioned the soldiers state how where they to know that he was mad and didn’t understand the meaning of stealing their keys.

Sahel has a daughter, Thula, who didn’t speak for eleven days after the massacre. She is written as a feminist who is inspirational heroine.  We meet Thula when she was an intelligent 10-year-old girl. As a teen, she was always a bit different from the other girls. She was not interested in marriage or having a hut of her own. She was interested in education. In 1980, she leaves her village to go to America for higher levels of education.  It is in America where she takes part in political activism. She returns in 1988 as a revolutionary.  

Mbue creates empathy and feelings of fondness for her long-suffering characters. Their beauty shows when they are not grieving, the villagers find happiness in each other, their village lifestyle, their traditions, and their faith in the spirits. The author’s ability to make every character’s narration uniquely important to the novel is impressive and seldom dull.  Yet somehow, the dialogue is not as engaging as it should be. Still, the author paints such a fascinating picture of people wronged by their government and Western greed that you will become deeply invested in the village and want to jump into the tale and fight with them. Think of the movie, “Erin Brockovich.”  “How Beautiful We Are” is the sort of novel that you will reflect upon long after you have read the last page.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in
exchange for an honest review.

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7 thoughts on ““How Beautiful We Are” by Imbolo Mbue

      1. A classic. About what happens to an African village when whites come to try to “civilize” them. I read it in High School. It made a very significant impression on me and my thinking about race.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. I just finished this over the weekend as well and I loved it. It was a bit slow towards the end, but I was impressed by the multiple narrative perspectives and the way that Thula’s age-mates were represented at the collective “we” voice of “The Children”, especially when we think of how these characters are normally portrayed by the media of the large corporation country “terrorists”, such a belittling of a generation(s) long injustice and lack of accountability.

    I thought it was anecdotally interesting too, the reference to Thula’s Uncle’s books, including the post colonial landmark text by Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, which is being reissued on October 19, its sixtieth anniversary edition. I haven’t read it, but I am tempted.

    I agree this novel could become a classic, it grasps a bold and expansive theme and manages to portray it through excellent storytelling, from a little told and underrepresented perspective. Brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

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