An African village struggles against big oil in How Beautiful We Were
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue
Genre: General Fiction
Publish date originally 6/20 but looks like it's pushed back to 2021; 384 pages
I received this book as an ARC (advance reader copy) from #NetGalley and #RandomHouse. The opinions expressed are my own. I requested this book because I liked the premise: a big oil company causes major environmental damage in a small Nigerian village and how it affects the people of the village.
This is a character driven novel. Both the people who inhabit the fictional village of Kosawa and the damaged land of the town itself play important roles in moving the story forward. Each chapter is narrated by a different person or group so we are treated to a variety of perceptions and reactions to the circumstances.
While I feel like the book tells an important story about how big American corporations can come into poor countries or areas and take over, run roughshod over the indigenous people (after all, we've done it more than once), the part of the book that really captivated me was the cultural aspect. I enjoyed learning about village life and their beliefs and feeling their strong sense of community.
"Look at how he spoke to even the least in the village as if they were the most significant, because isn't that how it should be? Wasn't man's ability to recognize his fellow human what made him better than dogs?"
The actual plot follows the expected path of the big, uncaring, corrupt corporation dealing with a corrupt foreign government to the detriment of the 'little people', the people who have no recourse. However, Thula, the heroine of the story, does dedicate her life to try to save her village by becoming the guiding revolutionary force in the village. That path leads to an American education which she takes back to Kosawa to try to help and save the land, save the village.
Thula wrote: "Knowledge, I believed, would give Kosawa power. But these Americans, with their abundance of knowledge, how could they be powerless too? How is it that their government, which is supposed to be their servant, is acting as their master?"
As a young girl Thula is deeply affected by the ongoing tragedies in her village and vows to find a way to help save her people. Alternating chapters about Thula and "the children" who remain in the village, even as they grow and have families of their own, show how a difference in perspective develops in the way they want to protest the damage to their town. It was an interesting technique to refer to her contemporaries as "the children" throughout the book, giving very few of them names, rather always referring to them as a group. Loved this quote, the simplicity of the concept:
"She says nothing, in the way mothers say everything while saying nothing."
How Beautiful We Were covers decades of corporate cover-ups, neglect, and damage to the environment and certainly portrays the corporation in a negative light. That's contrasted with the simplicity of the lifestyle in the village and the way the pollution sickens and kills their children, ruins their land and their livelihood.
"Yes, if we are to be conquered, let it not be because we never fought. Our fathers, brothers, uncles, friends - what did they die for? They died so that we could live peacefully in Kosawa, and if not us, then at least the next generation. No one has the right to make us prisoners on our land. No one has the right to take from us that which the Spirit gave our ancestors."
I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. I liked the battle between 'good and evil' and 'greed and simplicity', etc. I enjoyed the character of Thula and her ideals - most of the other characters are not as fully formed, but they're complete enough to propel the story. And I really liked the Nigerian setting.
Watch for this book to come out and be sure to give it a try. It would be an excellent choice for a bookclub selection.
Photo of African village via TrekEarth.com