In brief: Jende and Neni left Cameroon for life in America. Things take an upward turn when Jende gets a job as chauffeur to a Wall Street banker but then the GFC hits…
The good: A side of New York and its people I haven’t really explored before.
The not-so-good: The events leading up the finale were quite unexpected (but I don’t think any other ending would have sufficed).
Why I chose it: Christmas present (one of my wish list).
Publisher: 4th Estate (Harper Collins)
Setting: New York City and Cameroon
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
So many great books come out from September to almost Christmas in Australia, it’s hard to keep track of them all. For me, I also have a birthday around that time so I get to pick a lot of cool books for people to buy for me. Behold the Dreamers was one of the books in my Christmas presents – it sounded topical and a bit different to what I had been reading previously.
Reading it after the inauguration of America’s new president made Behold the Dreamers even more topical. It’s the story of Jende, who has come to America to find a better life with more opportunities than in his native Cameroon. He’s worked so hard to bring his wife and son to America too, where Neni studies with the dream of becoming a pharmacist. She’s on a student visa and he is seeking asylum. Life in America can be hard, but it’s nothing compared to Cameroon as there is so much more on offer. Then Jende gets a new job as a chauffeur to the Edwards family. Clark doesn’t check whether Jende has the right paperwork, but it’s a moot point. America is riding high in the noughties and the Edward family help out the Jongas. Cindy gives Neni some designer castoffs and also employs her to work at their summer home in the Hamptons.
But as the Jongas become more involved with the Edwards family, cracks appear not only in the financial climate but within the family units. Neni finds out a secret of Cindy’s and Clark’s days at Lehman Brothers are numbers. Under stress, each character reacts in a number of unexpected ways. But it’s the ending that really packs a punch. It’s unexpected, yet on reflection appeared to be the only way for the characters to move forward. I’m not going to spoil it, but it does give a lot of food for thought on immigration and the American Dream.
Both Jende and Neni reveal both positive and negative sides of their character throughout the book. Jende is so in love with his new country, he can’t get enough of it. He pores over newspapers and espouses the greatness of America to anyone who will listen. But when his immigration case becomes more complex, the rose tinted glasses fall off. Is America home? How is it better than Cameroon? In the height of the GFC, there isn’t much happiness for the Jonga family. Neni likewise is fascinated by the range of goods available in America and is also grateful for the chance to study to achieve her dreams. But when faced with the destruction of her dream, she isn’t afraid to use every device she has to protect herself and her family.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Behold the Dreamers is that it wasn’t afraid to show the immigrant experience warts and all. The fear that hangs over Jende as he hits the grey zone of immigration is palpable plus is shows that you will miss home even when it’s not where you’ve chosen to live. It shows the cracks of the dreams and that life doesn’t suddenly become great when you’ve moved to a new country with apparently more opportunities.
The Jonga’s problems in comparison to that of the Edwards’ really struck a contrast, in particular with Cindy. To Neni, she has everything she could want and more, but Cindy holds a history that is at odds with her façade. How Neni reacts to this at different periods is fascinating and closely related to her own home life. How much is stress and how much is lashing out against privilege?
Overall, Behold the Dreamers is fascinating in its honest portrayal of immigrants in America. It’s well written with a plot that takes you to many unexpected places.