How Beautiful We Were: A Novel

by Imbolo Mbue

Hardcover, 2021

Call number



Random House (2021), Edition: 1st Edition, 384 pages

User reviews

LibraryThing member LibroLindsay
This was a slow burn...perhaps a little too slow, as I almost abandoned it a few times. I'm glad I stuck with it though, as it was ultimately a very compelling read about the compounding impact of US capitalism overseas. I loved the rotating POVs and especially the chorus of The Children, though I really wish Thula had been given one last time to talk at the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member Unreachableshelf
Beautiful and moving but sometimes a bit distant in the passages related through letters.
LibraryThing member nancyadair
One angry woman did everything, and she failed.~from How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

I read Imbolo Mbue's first novel Behold the Dreamers as a galley and for book club. I jumped at the chance to read her second novel, How Beautiful We Were.

Was money so important that they would sell children to strangers seeking oil?~from How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

The novel is about an African village struggling for environmental justice, powerless, caught between an American oil company and a corrupt dictatorship government.

They are proud people, connected to the land of their ancestors. They have lived simple, subsistence lives, full of blessings. Until the oil company ruined their water, their land, their air. A generation of children watch their peers dying from poisoned water. Their pleas for help are in vain.

School-aged Thula is inspired by books, including The Communist Manifesto, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and The Wretched of the Earth. "They were her closest friends," spurring her into activist causes when she goes to America to study. In America and becomes an activist. Meanwhile, her peers in her home village lose faith in the process and take up terrorism.

How could we have been so reckless as to dream?~from How Beautiful We Were by Mbolo Mbue

The fictional village, its inhabitants and history, is so well drawn I could believe it taken from life. The viewpoint shifts among the characters.

We wondered if America was populated with cheerful people like that overseer, which made it hard for us to understand them: How could they be happy when we were dying for their sake?~from How Beautiful We Were by Mbolo Mbue

The fate of the village and its country are an indictment to Western colonialism and capitalism. Slaves, rubber, oil--people came and exploited Africa for gain. (And of course, it was not just Africa...) In the end, they lose their traditions and ancestral place as the children become educated and take jobs with Western corporations and the government.

This story must be told, it might not feel good to all ears, it gives our mouths no joy to sat it, but our story cannot be left untold.~from How Beautiful We Were by Mbolo Mbue

This is not an easy book for an American to read. It reminds us of the many ways our country has failed and continues to fail short of the ideal we hope it is. And not just abroad--we have failed our children here in America.

I was given access to a free ebook by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
Although challenging the second novel from PEN/Faulkner Award winner, Imobolo Mbue tells the story of an African village who agreed to allowing a corrupt American oil company drill, without regulation on their land. After the death of several children, the village madman, in a moment of clear thinking takes the company man captive. The story does not end here. A young girl, Thula, who witnessed what happened is offered and chance to study in the US. She writes back to friends encouraging them to fight what has happened to them. She also makes the connection of what is happening in US towns struggling with poverty. Mbue’s ability to deeply carve out the personalities of the various voices telling the story is stunning. She has given a strong voice to villagers trying to save themselves, their heritage and their village.… (more)
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
How Beautiful We Were is about a small village in Africa being ecologically devastated by oil production and political corruption. It might be about Uganda or Chad, but Mbue comes from Cameroon which seems to have the same problems. The heroine of the story is Thulu who has witnessed deaths caused both by the oil poisoning her land and by soldiers supporting its rulers. She is strong, intelligent, loving, and hopeful, as are the people she supports. People love her and many follow her even though she is an unnatural woman who doesn't marry or have children. While the book shows the struggle against capitalism and political oppression sexism patiently waits under it all, though it is not shown to be as destructive. I don't know what else to say except that it's a book about a few strong people fighting against corporate and political giants.… (more)
LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
How Beautiful We Were: A Novel, Imbolo, Mbue, author; Prentice Onayemi, Janina Edwards, Dion Graham, JD Jackson, Allyson Johnson, Lisa Renee Pitts, narrators
Once upon a time, in a place called Kosawa, Africa, the villagers lived happily with what little they had; they were content. Their simple huts without modern technology satisfied their needs. Neighbors helped each other. Children played together in a clean environment. They did not covet their neighbor or their neighbor’s belongings.
Then, as the world grew more advanced, one country made a business deal with an African leader to have his warriors capture the members of other tribes. It was a lucrative business for both native and foreigner. The foreigners then sold the captives as slaves to other foreigners. Soon, others realized the villagers were vulnerable and corporations made business dealings with the government. Corruption prevailed. The villagers were forced to work the factories of these unscrupulous businessmen so that they and the government could prosper. The villagers, however, reaped little or no benefits. Brutal soldiers kept them in line. There were no consequences for anyone but the abused villagers. The corporations and governments were maximizing their profits as they destroyed the way of life of these happy villagers. They were poorly educated, were very superstitions and believed in magic.
Soon, industrial waste products began to pollute the water and the air. An American oil company, Pexton, provided jobs for some villagers. The man who was the head of Kosawa, worked for Pexton. His family did not live in a hut, nor did they drink well water. So, when villagers began to fall ill from the contamination caused by Pexton’s industry, they were not affected. As more and more of the villager’s children fell ill and succumbed to their illnesses, the villagers began to grow suspicious. Why did the head of the village fare better? Why did he have bottled water? Why did those who lived in “The Garden” seem healthier? The American workers lived in “The Garden” in brick houses and drank bottled water. Was the oil company responsible for their troubles? Before they came, they did not have these illnesses. They brought their concerns to Pexton and their government. Both reassured them that they were doing nothing wrong and things would get better. As things grew worse instead, desperate villagers took desperate actions.
The villagers grew angrier and more frustrated with their lack of progress and the increasing illnesses. They were helpless to prevent their children’s illnesses. Those in charge would not provide them with the medication they needed. The villagers rebelled. They wanted to force those in charge to stop despoiling their environment, but the consequences turned out to be disastrous. The villagers were powerless. The government, the military and the corporations were corrupt and did as they pleased. The repercussions were brutal. The villagers had believed that they could work out a solution peacefully, and they believed that would all get along. The corporations and government believed in control. Soon, the situation grew out of control. Time passed as the villagers tried to return to some kind of a normal life. When one of the young children, Thula, goes to America to study, her eyes are opened to the corruption in the world. She wants to help Kosawa and bring justice to the villagers, but after decades, her efforts prove fruitless. The forces of evil remain in charge until there is nothing left of their village.
In this beautifully written fantasy, the author deftly exposes the corruption of government, the military and corporations, as motivated by power and greed, they slowly destroy those weaker, laying waste to their environment and to the population, without regard for the consequences. Superstition and a lack of education made the villagers particularly vulnerable, and so they were easy prey. They believed in magic, were tragically naïve and unsuspecting, making them ripe for the abuse of those who were more powerful, greedier, and more unscrupulous.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
At some times, I loved this novel and got caught up in the story - especially when it focused on Thula. Other times, I skimmed through paragraphs because I felt like it was dragging on.


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