Imbolo Mbue || How Beautiful We Were

How Beautiful We Were is one of those novels you should read when you want to know why we have to think twice about using oil. The novel explicitly describes what happens when a Western-world oil company  joins forces with a local dictator: people and nature become victims.

Living used to be good in the small village of Kosawa. Its villagers were proud of their land, felt deeply connected to it. The arrival of Pexton changes it all. The villagers remain proud and continue feeling connected, the pollution of their environment however is dramatic. The vapours coming from the oil pumps, the spillages, the poisonous substances dumped into the water. Images we all have come to know from Nigeria for instance.

Every month a Pexton employee keeps the villagers dangling. Making vague promises, giving away nothing. One single man changes all of this, he causes a small rift in the balance. This single deed changes the lives of the village people, in a positive and in a negative way. Kosawa is symbolic for how corruption ruins the lives of people in more than one way. And symbolic for the way maintaining century-old traditions is sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse.

Kosawa is the symbolic victim of the world’s unbridled craving for oil and money. The fate of village people and their young children matters less than selling many gallons of oil, acquiring even more money, becoming even more powerful. Kosawa is also symbolic for ancient role patterns in a traditional village, patterns that are slow to change. One of the girls in the village being allowed to go to secondary school and American college is a result of that one single deed having effect on everything in the village. Villagers who abhor violence feeling nevertheless forced to use it: the aftermath of power, corruption, greed and this one person rising to the occasion.  

How Beautiful We Were is a novel about large-scale pollution of nature and the almost inhuman attitude this requires of the powers that be. Decision-makers who, at the moment of writing this, still do not get that nature and men are worth more than all of those gallons of oil. How Beautiful we Were is furthermore also a novel about change that comes about when the modern world and tradition meet.

Kosawa is a traditional village with many customs to be proud of. It is also a village of traditional role patterns. Hunting is for the men, cooking and taking care of the children for the women. Male adolescents are allowed to frolic until getting married, young girls are in search of a suitable husband from the moment they start having their periods. No husband no future, no fate worse than being too unattractive to become a first wife.  

Mbue subtly shows how fighting for nature and health also leads to a tiny bit of emancipation in the village. Maybe the arrival of well-meaning Americans has caused a ripple in the position of women as well. Mbue also shows us that the village people are victims of circumstances, nevertheless lacking slightly in standing up for themselves. Maintaining valuable traditions does have its downsights.

Mbue does not stick to chronology completely. She has her characters look back and forward, throwing in a casual remark referring to the future once in a while. The most remarkable about the novel is her play with perspective. She changes it regularly, in this way allowing us a glimpse into the lives of even the supporting roles. The most interesting aspect is the one of the children, or rather, one specific group of children, all born in the same year.  This group performs the part of the ancient Greek chorus. As a group they comment on what’s happening, on what becomes of certain people. As a group they go from chorus to main character.

How Beautiul We Were is a well written, clever novel that balances language, structure and perspective all in aid of the urgent message: stop polluting the world and abusing innocent people. Mbue shows us precisely where power corrupts, greed de-humanises. How Beautfil We Were is not a novel you casually read, its message – certainly with the Glasgow-hangover still prominent, is there to stay.

About booksandliliane

I am an avid reader and love to share my love for literature. I have my own opinion on books that have been shortlisted, laureated by critics or are pushed on us by bookstores. I will try and explain why I like or do not like a book. Hopefully influencing you in your choice of books to read.
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