cover image How Beautiful We Were

How Beautiful We Were

Imbolo Mbue. Random House, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-59313-242-5

Mbue follows up her PEN/Faulkner-winning Behold the Dreamers with a stirring, decades-spanning portrait of an African village striking back against environmental exploitation. In the 1980s in the fictional village of Kosawa, children are dying, poisoned by American oil company Pexton’s leaking pipelines. One small act of sabotage—a villager steals a couple of Pexton representatives’ car keys—spurs Kosawa’s residents to kidnap their corrupt village headman and the two oilmen whose keys were stolen, and triggers a chain reaction of tiny revolutions that reverberate for generations through transatlantic radicalization and violence in Kosawa, told through the fortunes and failures of Thula Nangi and her family. Thula’s father, Malabo Nangi, vanished in the capital petitioning for government intervention; her uncle Bongo is spurred to seek foreign aid after Malabo disappears; and Thula becomes a charismatic revolutionary. With a kaleidoscope of perspectives, Mbue lyrically charts a culture in the midst of change, and poses ethical questions about the resisters’ complex set of motives. While a series of repeated reminiscences from various characters and explicit moral lessons stall the momentum, Mbue’s portrayal of Kosawa’s disintegration is nevertheless heartbreaking. This ruminative environmental justice elegy fills a broad canvas, but falls just short of being a masterpiece. Agent: Susan Golomb, Writers House. (Mar.)