A madman commits one of the first acts of rebellion in Imbolo Mbue's vast second novel. In the village of Kosawa, a battle is raging: On one side, the citizens of this once-idyll. On the other, the mammoth oil company Pexton, which has, over generations, polluted the village's water and air and ground and, through its malfeasance, killed a growing number of its children. With smooth prose from a number of narrators among the villagers, How Beautiful We Were tells the multi-generational saga of one small village's battle not just against one corporation and the dictator who profits from its avarice, but against neocolonialism itself. The novel's reach could have easily exceeded its grasp, given the weighty themes and its span, but Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel's end, has it firmly held in her hands.
The villagers know that something is wrong with the land they're living on. Acid rains, rivers gone a sickly green, people dizzy with disease. And they know that Pexton, the oil company that seems to exist just off-screen, is to blame for their loss of life and livelihood. Every eight weeks, Pexton sends representatives to reassure the people of Kosawa that all is well, and it is at one of these meetings that the aforementioned madman acts up.
The novel is kaleidoscopic in design, but one girl, Thula, becomes perhaps the closest thing to a protagonist. Early on, we see through her eyes, and the eyes of The Children (her age-mates, afforded their own chapters as a group), the impact of Pexton's activities on the village. Thula's younger brother, Juba, falls deathly ill. For a period, he even dies before being resuscitated by the village twins: a medium and a medicine man. Bursting with righteous fury, Thula and Juba's father Malabo confronts the chief, Woja Beki. Then, with a group of young men, Malabo heads to Bézam, the capital, to demand answers and restitution — never to return.
Education provides Thula with a way out: First, gifted copies of The Wretched of the Earth and The Communist Manifesto that her uncle owns but cannot read, then college and graduate study in America. Though physically distant, her soul is never far from her homeland, and she eventually returns to lead a revolutionary movement, which Mbue depicts in deep and tragic detail.
The country of which Kosawa is a part is nameless, but that allows it to be any West African nation that has had to suffer and continues to suffer under oil companies directed from boardrooms in New York or London — indeed, any African country that has counted among its long-running calamities an extractive neocolonialist Cthulhu in the form of a multinational corporation. Further demonstrating this all-ness of Africa in her story, many characters bear the names of recognizable places: Cotonou, Sahel, Juba, Cocody, Lusaka, Bamako. Pexton's analogue is obvious.
How Beautiful even makes a glancing reference to the alleged involvement of the French government in the plane crash that set into motion the 1996-1997 First Congo War and the Rwandan genocide.
But Mbue, gloriously, avoids the trap of depicting the Story of Africa as pure and unmitigated exploitation and slow-moving calamity. Some of the novel's most thrilling sections are those that follow Thula as she fights to depose the dictator whose complicity has eviscerated her home. She and The Children, now grown, some of them with families of their own, reveal to the reader what it can look like to be a part of your country's birth pangs. From so many angles, the beginning of African democracy can look like a stillbirth or miscarriage, but Mbue affords us a view from the inside where so many smaller miracles are at work, so many characters trying to find their own way to bring about a just government, the intricate, magnificent machinery operating in service to the ultimate miracle of a nation's nativity.
In this light, what looks like a madman's caprice at the beginning of the novel can be cast instead as an expansion of the moral imagination. Isn't it madness to battle Big Oil and hope for justice?
Though Mbue's novel serves as elegy to a land lost, it is also a celebration of something less tangible gained, whatever it is that's captured in the voice of a first-generation diasporic Kosawan asking their Big Papa or their Yaya to please tell them a story of the old country.
Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of Riot Baby. He writes for adults and young adults and tweets @TochiTrueStory.