Jende brings his wife Neni and their son to the US from Cameroon. They have high hopes for a better life. Jende is looking for a decent income, Neni wants to train as a pharmacist and to escape a society where life for a woman is circumscribed.
As Neni pursues her studies, Jende gets a great opportunity, to become a chauffeur to a senior employee at Lehman Brothers. This is 2007 so we know what is coming, but to Jende and Neni, this seems like the beginning of the life they dream of. They can save for a decent home and for Neni’s college fees. But first Jende needs to resolve his status as an illegal immigrant.
Behold the Dreamers vividly brings Jende and Neni’s worlds to life. Although most of the story takes place in the US, we get a strong sense of their life in Cameroon through their thoughts and their Cameroonian friends. We see New York through their eyes. Neni, in particular, loves the freedom and the new experiences it brings her, and has a wide circle of friends. It is only later that the different perceptions of the couple come to the fore.
The author has avoided the obvious clichés. The couple are not well off but nor are they destitute. Jende’s boss and his family are not archetypal evil capitalists. Jende is claiming refugee status even though he is not a real refugee. All these things mean that when challenging times come, there is no easy and obvious moral position for the reader to take.
Behold the Dreamers doesn’t always deliver in plot terms. It sets up a lot of things which aren’t paid off. They just happen, then something else happens. This normally bugs me in a novel (yes I know that’s how it is in real life) but here somehow it didn’t. I was enjoying the story and the characters so much I was happy to go along.
I loved the energy and humour of Behold the Dreamers and raced through it, while also wanting it not to end.
I received a copy of Behold the Dreamers from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Behold the Dreamers on Goodreads
Enjoyed this? For a different take on the immigrant experience, see my review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
Sometimes a novel that is true to life is necessarily unpredictable, almost a catalogue of random and unconnected events that you have to work hard at to see if any connections actually exist. A less effective novel doesn’t engage, but from your assessment it seems as though this one did. One I’ll have to keep an eye out for.
I suspect it’s due to it being a first novel rather than a deliberate choice by the author to subvert the rules of narrative! But still an enjoyable book.