Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo MBue (Contemporary Novel, 2017).
I pretty much agree with the front-cover blurb (a quote from The New York Times’ review of this strong first novel).
The author is, like her main characters, a native of Limbe (a city on the west-African coast of Cameroon). She’s lived in the US for over a decade and holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University.
In contrast, the book’s protagonist Jende Jonga has only a basic education. He’s hard-working, has a good heart and is certainly intelligent. He’s come to America in search of a better life for himself, his wife Neni, and their young son (as well as an infant, American-born daughter who comes along later). Now living in Harlem and forever struggling with the bewildering vagaries of US Immigration policy, he’s not at all equipped to deal effectively with the forces he and his family encounter in Great Recession-ravaged New York City, circa 2007.
With help from a cousin, a young corporate lawyer, Jende lands the best job he could imagine–chauffeur for a wealthy senior executive at the fabled Lehman Brothers investment firm. His employer, Clark Edwards, is not unkind or ungenerous and his wife even offers Neni temporary work between semesters of the school which Neni hopes will provide a springboard to a career as a pharmacist.
This work brings the young immigrants into contact with Edwards’s wife, their younger son, who’s a delightful kid, as well as the rebellious older son. The two families interact and draw closer–even as the pending financial disaster caused by reckless bank schemes looms ever larger. Clark is one of the few ‘insiders’ who fully recognizes that the big-money house of cards he’s tied to is about to come crashing down. This awareness only adds to family and personal pressures that may ruin everything.
Both marriages and the families built around them teeter on the brink. Clark’s wife finally falls completely apart, and Jende and Neni become unwilling witnesses to (not to mention victims of) the savage downturn’s fallout. The strain to all concerned is intense, and Jende’s very uncertain visa status only adds to the misery.
In the end, a despairing Jende makes a decision that flies in the face of that grand old American illusion of up-by-your-own-bootstraps triumph. Yet early 21st century New York is hardly Horatio Alger territory. It may (make that it will) be disturbing to those still clinging to that aspect of our country’s historic mythology. But it’s probably the right decision for these particular people, in that particular set of circumstances.
Also, I should note that while the author’s use of the term ‘dreamers’ in the title is certainly a reference to the American Dream, the Jonga family’s status does not refer to the recent/ongoing controversy of the DACA program (the foreign-born children brought illegally to the US while minors and now thoroughly Americanized), though they are popularly called ‘dreamers.’
Bottom line: A very good first novel from a thoughtful and discerning writer.