How Beautiful We Were: A Novel

by Imbolo Mbue

Hardcover, 2021

Call number




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


"'We should have known the end was near.' So begins Imbolo Mbue's exquisite and devastating novel How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by a large and powerful American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean up and financial reparations to the villagers are made--and ignored. The country's government, led by a corrupt, brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight the American corporation. Doing so will come at a steep price. Told through multiple perspectives and centered around a fierce young girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary, Joy of the Oppressed is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghosts of colonialism, comes up against one village's quest for justice--and a young woman's willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people's freedom"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
When the American oil company first started work on the village's lands, the villagers were excited about the benefits and improvements that were sure to come. But what followed were lands destroyed and dying children, the water undrinkable and the village stuck between a company that insists that
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they'd like to help, but their hands are tied, and a government that silences anyone who might get in the way of the current arrangements.

This isn't a fun read, but it is an informative one. Mbue has made some interesting decisions about how she told this story, including the use of the first person plural for some chapters, a choice that works far better here than in other places I've encountered it. This is very much a book written by an African (Mbue was born in Cameroon and now lives in New York) for an American audience but it isn't a book that coddles the reader. It explains without over-simplifying. At heart, though, this is less a novel propelled by a story than one motivated by a cause.
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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
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really wish Thula had been given one last time to talk at the end.
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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
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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
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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
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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 hemlokgang
This disturbing novel is also lovely & hopeful. Set in a fictitious African village, an American oil corporation sets up nearby and shortly determined the shape of the residents' lives, not in a good way. They story follows many villagers, with a focus on a particular same age children. The prose
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is often lyrical despite the horror of certain events. Themes include: the aftermath of trauma, cross cultural confusion, the horror of greed, the birth of revolution, the pain of failure and more. The hopeful aspect comes in the second half as new visions for governance bloom. A bittersweet, thought-provoking, elegantly written novel.
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LibraryThing member TheDivineOomba
This book was one of those that is important to read, but relentless in the story. Set in a small village someplace in Africa, it tells the story of the fight to protect the village from a fictional American Oil company that is polluting the land, air, and water of the village.

The story alternates
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perspective, from brave Thula, whose entire life is defined at making the company pay for the harm it caused, from studying in America and using that education to organize rallies and get legal standing for the villagers, to the collective age-group of Thula's, who stay in their village and have to deal with the immediate results of Oil Spills and dirty air.

This is a book that was chosen by my book club because it has ended up on a number of banned book lists. And I can see why - while the story isn't Anti-American, it is Anti-American Oil Company, pointing out the rich and corrupt are in every company. There are also subplots of women independence, love, loyalty to family/home/ways of life. Its not an easy read, and sometimes bleak in outlook.

As for the book itself, I found it hard to get into. But once I started, I couldn't stop. I really needed to know how it ended. But it is bleak, at times hopeless, and I think it really gets across the feeling of helplessness in the face of evil.
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LibraryThing member browner56
For generations, the people of Kosawa, a small rural village in an unnamed West African country, have lived peaceful lives, hunting, fishing, and farming to raise their families. That all changes near the end of the last century when Pexton, an American energy company, is allowed by a corrupt
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government to exploit the villagers by drilling for oil on their ancestral land, an act that gradually despoils the environment with toxic waste and adversely impacts those who still call the place home. How Beautiful We Were tells the story of Kosawa’s fight over the next four decades to restore their former way of life, or at least get compensated for the damages they have suffered. We experience much of this heartbreaking history through the eyes of Thula Nangi, a young girl who grows up to be a strong and resourceful woman with a passion for her homeland and a zeal for seeking justice that never wavers until the day she dies.

This is a beautifully written book that relates a moving and believable tale. Imbolo Mbue creates prose that is both powerfully frank in its depiction of the greed, corruption, and brutality of the agents of power and lyrically tender in rendering the plight and spirit of the Kosawa villagers. It also interesting to note the structure the author adopts in telling her story. Laid out in a mostly linear fashion over a forty-year period, the narration rotates in alternating chapters from the first-person collective viewpoint of Thula’s peers (called “The Children”) to that of several members of the Nangi family. This provides the reader with a useful contrast as the myriad narrators often see the same set of events from different perspectives and varying levels of intensity. The only real critique I have is that the story seemed to bog down a little bit near the end as the protracted legal process ground toward its inevitably sad conclusion.

So, at the end, I was left with the following question: Can the words in a book—a novel, no less—change the world and make it a better place? As much as I would like to think so and hope so, I really am not sure. Certainly, powerful and moving prose such as that found in How Beautiful We Were can raise awareness and even serve as a rallying cry for some sort of social action. But what becomes of that heightened consciousness and newly found goodwill? How does that gets translated into actions and outcomes that will correct an unjust or cruel situation? Of course, the irony is that this novel itself teaches us that while words and good intentions can indeed inspire heartfelt activity, it is very unlikely that anything will ultimately change. Maybe, then, just telling the story will have to be enough for us.
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LibraryThing member Anniik
This is a sad and somewhat bleak book about a town ravaged by an American oil company and its affects on a small African village. Beautifully written and heartbreaking, it feels to me kind of like the continuation of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
How Beautiful We Were, the second novel by Imbolo Mbue, has a strong opening. It depicts the story of a people who live in fear amid environmental destruction brought on by an American oil firm in the imaginary African community of Kosawa. Farmlands have become barren as a result of pipeline
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spills. Toxic water has killed children while the locals have been given cleanup instructions and financial compensation, but these promises were broken. The dictatorial government of the nation provides no help. With few options left, the Kosawa population decides to rebel. Their battle will cost them dearly and last for years.

How Beautiful We Were is a simplistic examination of what occurs when a community's determination to hold on to its ancestral land and a young woman's willingness to give up everything for her people's freedom clash with the apparent reckless drive for profit and the ghost of colonialism (although there is no explanation how the oil firm makes a profit when their oil pipeline is broken - just one example of how the narrative does not quite hold together). The narrative is spread over a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary.

I was disappointed with this book as I found the narrative disjointed and repetitive. By the middle of the book I grew tired of the story. I was not impressed with the presentation as it seemed fantastic mixing the evil corporation and colonialism in a way that ultimately defied belief. Certainly bad things can and do happen but this book seemed to portray the situation in a simplistic narrative that did not pass muster with this reader.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Imbolo Mbue 's second novel, How Beautiful We Were provides an insider's
view of a village whose eden-like existence is ruined by the discovery of oil.
In a village called Kosovo, the oil under the ground winds up being a curse since the American company Pexton started drilling. "Within a year,
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fishermen broke down their canoes and found new uses for the wood. Children began to forget the taste of fish. The smell of Kosawa became the smell of crude. The noise from the oil field multiplied; day and night we heard it in our bedrooms, in our classroom, in the forest. Our air turned heavy". The use of various narrators and even a Greek Chorus entitled The Children provide the various insights of narrative which reads like a fable. The children have become sick and the once beautiful area is polluted. As the title implies, there's a lot of reminiscing about what this village used to be like.
The story starts with the Pexton, (sound like Exxon), men coming to both hear and ignore the grievances, but the village madman takes their keys and won't let them return. It takes the madman to truly see that no one will listen unless they do something to make them. The second chapter is written in first person from Thula whose father went to reason with the company in the city. The men continue to feel that if they could only talk to the men in charge they would understand and stop the pollution. These men have not been exposed to greed. He and a few men took buses and supposedly met with the company to complain about the death of the children, but they never returned. The mayor, who has profited from the company, just tries to keep the peace. When armed men come looking for the missing company men, they are told that perhaps they are visiting relatives, and the town gets a conspiratorial chuckle at their successful deception. The chuckles will stop soon after.
Mbue goes on to chart the next couple decades and centers her story around Thula as the prodigal child going off to America to get educated, always promising to come back and resolve this problem. I recommend you read to find out if she does.
We should have known the end was near. When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead.”

“Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same. No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.”

I had just turned nineteen. I remember I wore a layer of anxiety that day—I’d reached marriage age with no one handsome in sight. A man in my village named Neba was my only option, but I couldn’t look past his nostrils, which flared like a windswept skirt.

In our response, we reminded her of the story about the ants that killed the growling dog, bite by bite. We could do such a thing too. There was no better time to start biting Pexton than now.

She had the fortitude of the sun—no matter how dark and thick the clouds, she was confident she could melt them and emerge in full glory.

Wasn’t it time every tribe started looking out for itself? they wondered. My sister tried to argue against such thinking. She tried to contend that the country might be made up of dozens of tribes but it was still one nation, a garden with flowers of assorted shapes and colors and fragrances, in unison forming an exquisite beauty. Few listened—unity seemed too vulgar a notion.

Washington Post -Ron Charles
Growing up under a dictatorship in Cameroon, Mbue knows the despair that germinates in the contaminated soil of these industrial crimes. Her novel follows out the endless cycles of acquiescence and resistance, exposure and neglect, litigation and corruption that grind down exploited people…. In any practical sense, the village that Thula and her friends are trying to save is already gone. From the first line, we know what awaits Kosawa. But the fatalism of this story is countered by the beauty of Mbue’s prose and the purity of her vision. “We hoped,” the children say, “that we would die where we were born.” As long as there are novels this powerful, the fight’s not over.
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LibraryThing member streamsong
This takes place in an unnamed country in Africa under a dictator’s thumb. He has made a deal with an oil company that the company may take all the oil under one village’s land.

The dictator makes masses of money from this project. The oil company also makes masses of money, especially as it
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turns out, they had signed an agreement that they have no responsibility for consequences for the villagers’ health, the taking of their land or disruption of their way of life. At first the villagers are excited to learn there will be jobs. But very few of them receive jobs or money. Those who do seem to be creatures owned by the company. The environmental impacts are huge: oil spills destroy farm land, the once pristine river has been dubbed the River of Death due to its chemical load and constant burning at the oil site destroys the air.

When children sicken and die, the men of the village organize a delegation to the capital to talk to the government, but the delegation disappears. Another delegation then goes to check on the first with discouraging results. The dictator solves the complaints by sending in in his military to permanently quiet the villagers by massacring them.

An international justice organization takes up the case to expose the American oil company. At first it seems things will get better as the company agrees on some reparations and bottled water for the children. They provide secondary schooling for the older children and the best scholar in the village, a girl named Thula, is sponsored to go to the United State for college and post graduate work. She learns how ordinary people can stand together to change the course of history.

But nothing really changes – more broken promises, more violence and killings. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself since the first Europeans arrived in the area to take slaves and then later ‘recruited’ workers for their rubber plantations. It’s a story of greed and money and ‘might making right’ whether the might belongs to the colonialists, the corporations, or the leaders within the country itself. All is compounded by suspicions of tribes against each other and the naïve belief of the villagers that if the authorities only knew about the people’s suffering, they would act to fix it.

This book is pretty bleak. Are there answers? I’m also left (as I’m sure the Cameroonian author intended) contemplating how much responsibility belongs to the western nations using the oil.

This is well written with just enough hope dangled that circumstances will change to keep me reading.
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LibraryThing member nadia.masood
“We should have known the end was near,” the story begins. “When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead.”

How Beautiful We Were takes place in a fictional African country, but the story bears a close resemblance to some
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very similar problems in real life. The book explores topics, such as imperialism, political corruption, environmental destruction, acts of rebellion, and courage.

Imbolo Mbue is a highly talented writer. Considering the topic, the book is sobering and difficult to read, yet she writes it so beautifully. I’m officially a fan of Imbolo Mbue!
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