Jende Jonga of Limbe, Cameroon, follows his dream of a better life to New York City. Two years later he brings over his wife, Neni, to follow her dream of becoming a pharmacist, with their six-year old son.
Jende strikes gold by getting a job as chauffeur to Clark, an investment banker and a child of privilege, for a $35,000 annual salary.
This is just before the crash of 2008 and Clark, a good man, can see it coming and Junde overhears him trying and failing to convince his co-workers to the do the right thing. In the meantime, Clark’s elder son is turning his back on the West and immigrating to India to follow his bliss, to the consternation of both Clark and his wife, Cindy.
Jonde lies like a rug to get into the country.
“How long do you plan on staying in New York City?” the consulate had asked him.
“Only three months, sir,” he had replied. “Just three months, and I promise I will return.”
…He was leaving Cameroon in a month! Leaving to certainly not return after three months. Who traveld to America only to return to a future of nothingness in Cameroon after a mere three months?
After Cindy forces Clark to fire Jonde, Neni outright blackmails Cindy with evidence Cindy’s abusing drugs and alcohol, for a $10,000 payoff.
Jonde hires a shady lawyer to convince a judge that he needs to be granted asylum from the murderous attentions of his father-in-law, which is a lie.
And when Jonde makes his decision and Neni disagrees, he beats her, in front of their son.
They aren’t monsters, they are both intelligent, motivated, and hard-working, but these are not the most admirable people you ever met between the pages of a book, either.
Jonde decides to return to Cameroon. Between blackmail and their savings they have quite the little nest egg and he has plans to start businesses of his own. I don’t know what his marriage is going to be like back in Limbe but he is intelligent and a very hard worker so I’m sure he’ll become a successful entrepreneur and a big man locally. It’s not the American Dream denied; it’s the American dream exported.
Neni’s dream is totally denied. She can’t go to school back home and her plans upon their return consist mostly of making sure she is properly dressed and made up so as to lord it over the women back home who might dare to pity her.
Mbue shows us these two families side by side, Jonde and Neni and Cindy and Clark and their respective children, and I think part of her intent is to underscore how at least Jonde and Neni have a functional, supportive family, whereas Cindy and Clark have anything but. And perhaps that American society began its decline when we became so mobile and disconnected from our families? I don’t much like the ending because I felt that when Jende beat Neni, and when she made herself complicit with it, that they were returning to a traditional patriarchal society where the men rule and the women serve. Neni’s father absolutely refused to send her to school in Cameroon, which was one of the reasons she was so happy to move to America.
My friend Pati recommended this book to me, with the comment that our nation is in decline. By which she meant people used to emigrate here to build a better life, and Mbue is saying they should stay home and build their own better life there. If Pati and Mbue are right, we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the American empire, which was founded and fueled by immigrants. If we’re no longer the destination of choice for immigrants, we’re done.
But no law ever said the American empire lasts forever.
This would be a terrific book for a book club discussion.
More of my Goodreads reviews here.