You’ll enjoy Behold the Dreamers. Except for the references to the coming Obama presidency and how it has the potential to turn around Wall Street and rekindle the American dream. That part you’ll find a painful reminder of where we are in the American political-civic moment. But if you can put aside your current historic moment (ha) and slip into the novel’s time period – just before, during and after the financial collapse of 2008 – you’ll find yourself in a fully realized, fully human exploration of income inequality, privilege, race and nationality in America. And occasionally laughing about it.
Okay, so you won’t be able to forget the current political moment because the novel centres around systems of immigration and refugee claims, asking the reader to consider what individuals are willing to do, and to give up, to live in America. It then takes on capturing the everyday dimensions of a life led in America for those who dream of better lives for themselves and their children.
You’re probably thinking bleak and difficult. You’d be wrong on this count. Imbolo Mbue has – somehow – managed to make this difficult subject warm and – against all odds – funny. Which isn’t the same as saying the novel is free of challenging plot moments. We witness obvious examples of personal and physical violence as well as structural and systemic violences. Moments of humour work as a formal mechanism to ensure we keep reading, as these scenes of pain, and the reminders of how this reader, at least, is implicated not only in the perpetuation, but in the benefit from, these systems of inequality, threaten to make us too defensive to hear the story (we privileged readers also demand the story we hear of the less privileged in neat, easily digestible packages). The novel does it by following two families and patriarchs: one the Wall Street executive, the other his chauffeur. In each representation the reader is confronted with the question of the relativity of suffering and the adage that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way (okay, not an adage so much as another thing we can thank Tolstoy for).
As the two families work through their individual and shared challenges we are reminded again and again of the extraordinary privileges of education, job security, familial connection, gender, age, freedom of movement and travel, and income. That these are recognized as privilege, depends on the character. Calling on readers to examine their own lives and ask – if not for the first time – what can be done in this very particular moment to… what? lessen division? reduce inequality? protect the fundamental rights of all? Read?
And it has a fantastic ending.