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How Beautiful We Were

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From the celebrated author of the New York Times bestseller Behold the Dreamers, comes a sweeping, wrenching story about the collision of a small African village and an America oil company.

"We should have known the end was near."

So begins Imbolo Mbue’s powerful second novel, How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells the story of a people living in fear amidst environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company.

Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of clean-up and financial reparations to the villagers are made—and ignored. The country’s government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interest. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. Their struggle would last for decades and come at a steep price.

Told through the perspective of a generation of children and the family of a girl named Thula who grows up to become a revolutionary, How Beautiful We Were is a masterful exploration of what happens when the reckless drive for profit, coupled with the ghost of colonialism, comes up against one community’s determination to hold onto its ancestral land and a young woman’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people’s freedom.

"The unforgettable story of a community on the wrong end of Western greed, How Beautiful We Were will enthrall you, appall you, and show you what is possible when a few people stand up and say this is not right. A masterful novel by a spellbinding writer engaged with the most urgent questions of our day.”—David Ebershoff, bestselling author of The Danish Girl

384 pages, Hardcover

First published March 9, 2021

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About the author

Imbolo Mbue

5 books2,239 followers
Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City. BEHOLD THE DREAMERS is her first novel.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,026 reviews
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
387 reviews3,098 followers
January 14, 2023
Wow! If you read one book this year, this is it. Here is hoping that this book starts a movement.
How Beautiful We Were focuses on a village in Africa where an American oil company has arrived and polluted the groundwater and air in the process. This book does what a picture cannot – it tells the feelings of what it is like to live without clean water. We meet a young girl named Thula, and the book follows her, her classmates, and her family with the book devoting chapters to each group. Will this village be able to get this American oil company to clean up their waste?

Watch my video review here including the true story behind this book: https://youtu.be/Yva_hnrdFRk

Personally, I have never read a book that I knew was going to be 5 stars so quickly. The prose was amazing, and it didn’t hold back. About 60% into the book, a few dates were mentioned which made me believe that this book might be based on real events. With some research, I discovered that oil companies have indeed polluted the groundwater in Africa. There are news articles and pictures, but this book goes beyond. It details the feelings of living without clean water – What does it mean to actually have oil in your water which is supposed to be supporting your crops and trees and provide hydration?

Everyone should buy this book! However, if you consider yourself a social activist, a good person, and/or an environmentalist, this is a must-read. This is a book that I hope will change the world and shed light on an important topic.

*I received this ARC as a free copy from NetGalley for my fair and honest opinion.

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

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Profile Image for Liz.
1,957 reviews2,403 followers
March 9, 2021
I was a big fan of Behold The Dreamers, so I was anxious to read Mbue’s sophomore effort. This time, the story takes place in a fictional African village that has been ravaged by environmental degradation brought on by an American oil company. It’s the 1980s and both the company and the government are doing nothing to fix the problem. But in the midst of a meeting with the company representatives, someone finally takes action.
We hear from an assortment of characters, all villagers. Mbue does a great job of putting us in the minds of the different characters, as they search for a way forward. The main character is Thula, whom we follow from childhood through adulthood. The writing is beautiful and she provides a strong feel for time and place.
This is not a fast paced story and at times, I felt it rambled. The timeline jumped all over the place and sometimes made for a difficult time for my comprehension.
In the end, I felt disappointed with the book. I could sympathize with the characters, but I never felt that they resonated as real.
My thanks to netgalley and Random House for an advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Beata.
711 reviews1,082 followers
March 21, 2021
A novel with many themes that are essential for understanding Africa: slavery, land exploitation, white man indifference to the plight of the indiginous communities, traditions and myths and many more. An astounding tale of villagers' fight for the right to retain dignity and their own ways of life.
Several voices tell their stories which present daily life, customs, moments of happiness and long periods of misery and helplesness when confronted with powers beyond their control.
A novel to remember!
*Many thanks to Imbolo Mbue, Canongate, and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*
Profile Image for Swrp.
561 reviews105 followers
March 1, 2022

[Leopard's paw, ©9GAG, Pinterest.]

"Because we carry the blood of the leopard."

"The past always wins, because what it says is always true."

Apologies, but I will need some more time to write a review, due to my personal circumstances.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,024 reviews48.3k followers
March 27, 2021
In 2016, during a presidential campaign punctuated by racist alarms about immigration, Imbolo Mbue published her first novel about an African man struggling to become an American citizen. Informed by her own experience as an immigrant from Cameroon, “Behold the Dreamers” captured the hopes and frustrations of millions of people drawn to this country. Mbue’s capacious sympathy and careful fidelity to the voices of her characters — from the extraordinarily rich to the precariously poor — made “Behold the Dreamers” one of the most illuminating and touching novels of the year. When it won the PEN/Faulkner prize, Mbue’s success felt like a double celebration of the artistic talent of a young writer and the growing diversity of our literary canon.

Mbue’s new novel, “How Beautiful We Were,” once again asks us to behold the dreamers. But it’s an entirely different book, born of a very different dream. Begun almost two decades ago, this is the story of people touched by the United States from thousands of miles away. Though they place their trust in American decency, they’re not hoping to be allowed in but to be left alone.

“How Beautiful We Were” — that past tense is devastating — takes place in the village of Kosawa in an unnamed African country. Guessing the real location isn’t necessary; the tragedy that unfolds in these pages has been repeated in nations across the continent. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,389 reviews2,266 followers
December 3, 2021
I know nothing about how a girl makes men pay for their crimes, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.

This book was worth the wait, when you read it, you will see why!

In Imbolo Mbue’s sophomore novel How Beautiful We Were we are taken to a fictional village called Kosawa which is on the continent of Africa. Kosawa is home to the villagers who once live a simple life farming and living off the land. That is until an American Oil company called Pexton found oil close to the village and started drilling. Kosawa which was oncea fertile and thriving village is now home to children dying from toxic air and fumes. The land is barren and infertile, the river is polluted and water from the well can lead to death.

The Pexton’s overseer comes with promises and reparations that are never fulfilled. Each year the Villagers sit listening to promises of what is going to happen, how Pexton will start assisting them but nothing happens until one night, the village Madman decides enough is enough. With one bold move from one Villager, they all decide it is time to fight back. No one can image the fight that awaits them.

This is a story of fight, of greed, environmental awareness, poverty, corruption, activism, agency, colonialism and the cost of not having a voice. Told from the perspectives of Thula, her family and the children who grew up with her, we are giving an in-depth look into the history of Kosawa and Pexton and how the fight turned out. I loved that the author told this very heavy story from the point of views those who are not only involved but deeply impacted.

Yes, this was a slow burn, and generally I would lose interest but having the change in narration and the author making the fight against this oil company the focus of the story kept me deeply invested. I need to know what happened. How will it turn out? Can a small village in Africa win against a huge American oil company? Who will hear their voice? How can one woman win this uphill battle? Will they lose interest? Will they forget about all the children that died because the government decided to hand over land to an oil company?

Imbolo Mbue KNOW how to tell a story. She knows how to keep you invested and deeply interested. She is able to take you through a range of emotions that will not let up. She wrote these characters with care and dimensions. I particularly loved reading about the village history, customs and culture. How the Villagers interact with the world and people around them. I felt the author did a superb job of telling a convincing story through Thula. There is the ever-present folklore and culture that transcends and that for me was particularly well executed.

Friends, I could GUSH about this book. The themes of love, marriage, education, death, allyship, what activism looks like. There is so much to talk about and dive into. Did I mention the writing was just *chef’s kiss*. I could go on and on, but what I will say is that book was worth the wait!

Thanks Random House for this book.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,904 reviews35.3k followers
July 1, 2021
Audiobook…read by Prentice Onayemi, Janina Edwards, Dion Graham,
JD Jackson, Allyson Johnson, Lisa Renee Pitts
…..14 hours and 7 minutes

It must be me—but I kept starting and stopping this ‘audio-listen’ many times. Parts resonated with me —parts didn’t.
I had resistance to this novel when it first came out —(but appreciated the high rating reviews- so I kept having 1 foot in and 1 foot out for many months.
I finally committed to it after a wonderful review by Lisa …(I know, lots of Lisa’s on Goodreads)….😊….
—I wasn’t sure I was up for the heavy weight of a story about greed of an American oil company that resulted in death of children in an African village.
I mean—is anyone up for this subject — Woopsie-Daisy-Party time?

….The writing is beautiful….
….The voices for Thule, (especially Thule: the longest living witness to so much manipulating deceit),The Children, Bongo, Sahel, Yaya, and Juba were all outstanding—[nothing needed correcting with the chosen audio-voices]
….The experience of family, love, community > were felt.
….The struggles were ‘really’ felt….the powerlessness of being able to do much about the corrupt dictatorship government
….The powerful role that generations pass down — giving dignity to their heritage was a strong component…..
But…..the gut ruthless penetrating emotional experience- for me - was weak. Perhaps there is a little bit too much telling and not enough showing? —or…..it was just ‘me’

I’m still glad I read it. It’s important story…..and Imbolo Mbue is a skillful valuable writer.

Thanks Lisa ….rating it 3.85…rating up to 4 overall stars.

Profile Image for Lisa.
1,415 reviews533 followers
June 20, 2021
[4+] This wrenching, ambitious novel is very different from Mbue's "Behold the Dreamers, " which beautifully captured the varied perspectives of a few characters in NYC. This novel follows an entire village in an unnamed African country as they struggle against their brutal exploitation by both their country's leader and an American oil company. Mbue brilliantly depicts the oil company, their tactics and the villagers' response by using the individual and collective voices of the villagers. Like her previous novel, Mbue has created a profound, timely novel about momentous issues. (I listened to the audiobook which was very well done)
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,108 reviews8,023 followers
June 15, 2021
A stunning and powerful sophomore novel from Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were tells the story of a fictional village called Kosawa in a fictional African nation which has been polluted by an American oil company called Pexton.

The people of Kosawa are deeply affected—physically, mentally and spiritually—by this contamination. The air, earth and water is marred by the oil company's presence. Children are getting sick and dying. While the Kosawan people suffer, profits line the wallets of the American oilmen and the turncoat Kosawans who are in their pockets.

Mbue chooses to write the story not from one singular voice but from the perspective of many villagers, especially those closely linked to our main character, Thula. Thula is a young girl who grows up to bear the weight of Kosawa's fate on her shoulders, compelled to take action against the regime that has so long suppressed them. In between these chapters are sections told from 'The Children' of the village, specifically those age-mates of Thula who witness the goings-on of Kosawa over the four decades that elapse during the novel. The writing is intimate and immediate, bringing the reader into each perspective as well as grounding them in the community at large by hearing from this group of children collectively.

The novel asks many questions of the reader and provides few, if any, answers. This may confound and frustrate readers who want a more tidy, plot-based story. While there is plenty of action and harrowing events throughout, it's clear this novel seeks to explore the inner lives of its characters and the questions they have about justice, loyalty, reparations, faith, and much more.

Mbue kicks off the novel by using a stereotypical 'village madman' character in an unexpected way. With this, she is asking what level of madness one must have, whether a revolutionary or an average citizen, to seek and claim what we are owed in this life, if we are owed anything at all. Leading a revolution takes not only hope and perseverance, but a bit of lunacy. To believe a young woman like Thula can overthrow a corrupt American company like Pexton is perhaps idealistic, but is it incomprehensible?

I found this novel to be utterly engrossing. It's quite dense and character-driven, so it should've been a slow read. But I couldn't put it down because Mbue has so richly crafted these characters and this village and centered issues that reflect what continues to go on in our world today. The biggest question for me revolved around children; how do we raise them in a corrupt world, and how do our choices, decisions, and commitments contribute to the legacy we leave them?

I was reminded of issues, ones I later found out were influences on Mbue, like Sandy Hook, Standing Rock, the BLM marches, the Women's March, and more. Having lived now through the turn of the millennium, 9/11, a war in the Middle East, the BP oil spill, the 2016 election, a pandemic and so much more, it's not unrealistic to read a novel that gives its characters very little reprieve from their suffering.

Though I haven't lived in their situation, and all things considered my life is extremely privileged, I could see the reflections of our world in this fictional village. The greed and corruption of a corporation is only possible through the greed and corruption of individuals. And conversely, the undoing of these power structures may not rely on the consensus of the many but on the actions of the radical few to fuel the 'Fire,' as Thula repeats, to burn it all down.

As one character narrates late in the book [not a spoiler]: "I told her that on all sides the dead were too many—on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who'd never chosen sides. What good were sides? Who could ever hail themselves triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted, there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost."

This book is a telling of that loss. The loss of innocence the children suffer, and the loss of lives both sides endure. Amidst all this is a sort of wistful nostalgia, a predilection for what once was (How Beautiful We Were) that ultimately forces us to look forward, as that is the only way we are moving. Perhaps to a brighter future, or maybe simply more struggles, but that is for tomorrow to bear.

I am confident I'll be thinking about this novel for a long time. Mbue is an author I'll continue to read from and I eagerly await whatever she writes next.
Profile Image for Barbara.
267 reviews204 followers
November 11, 2021
"Remember what happened, the past says. Consider what might happen, the future says. The past always wins, because what it says is true - what happened lives with me, it surrounds me, ever present. I cannot trust the future and its uncertainty."

How beautiful we were before: before the degradation of our environment, before our children started dying, before we knew about greed and unkept promises, before we knew the foreigners' Spirit which would bring us out of the darkness we didn't realize we were in, before their prosperity their civilization strangled ours. But we should have known, the villagers thought. "What good ever came from overseas?" The history is not pretty.

Imbolo Blue tells the story of the village and people of Kosawa in a fictional country in Africa. It could be so many African nations where greedy authoritarian leaders choose wealth over the well-being of the people. When an American oil company gains permission to drill for oil under this village, under their homes, under their farmland, their lives are changed forever. The oil company and the self-serving dictator benefit; the people suffer. This alone is not what makes Mbue's book so extraordinary. There are so many themes in this devastatingly beautiful story, all contributing to the emotional impact.

The inhabitants of Kosawa valued family, hard work, truth. They never had encountered false guarantees. Their innocence, their persistent faith that things would get better waned as their land, air, and water became more polluted, more children died, and they kept hearing more excuses that were "as false as a snake walking on four legs". What could they do? How do you confront a corrupt government and a powerful corporation?

This multi-generational story is narrated by many different villagers, but it is Thula's story. She is a bright young girl seeking ways to find justice after the retaliatory death of her beloved father and uncle. The foundation of her plan was education.; it was not her way out, but her way to bring salvation through a peaceful revolution. Her determination to get an education prevailed, though education was not highly regarded, unheard of for a girl. But persevere she did. "Her books became her pillow and her blanket, her plate of food and the water that quenched her thirst. They sang lullabies to her." From the local schools through eight years of higher education in America, she is enlightened about peaceful revolution. Her plan is developed for her action when she returns to her homeland.

Thula does return with an unshakeable belief in the power of her intention. She becomes the hoped for savior, the heroine possessing "the fortitude of the sun - no matter how dark and thick the clouds, she was confident she could melt them and emerge in full glory." Thula, whose Spirit was not satisfied by worldly things but only by pursuing her purpose. She is the Martin Luther King, the Nelson Mandela; like them, she pays the price as she attempts to undo the wrongs, make those who promised, pay up.

This story seeped into my very being; it engulfed me and still holds me. It was the most powerful, moving, and arresting book a have read in a long time. Mbue started this novel seventeen years before she wrote Behold the Dreamers, but circumstances and the emotional drain it caused her resulted in long writing breaks in order to reenergize. I'm so thankful she found the strength to complete such a masterpiece. I will read anything this talented writer and wordsmith writes.

"This story must be told, it might not feel good to all ears, it gives our mouths no joy to say it, but our story cannot be left untold." ( the Fishes Plea song sung by the people of Kosawa)
Profile Image for Jessica.
324 reviews361 followers
March 11, 2021
How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue is a moving story about a fictional African Village told from multiple perspectives. An American oil company causes devastating problems for the people and land. The villagers are dealing with a government that doesn’t care about its people and only cares about its own interest. The story revolves around Thula. Thula grows from a nervous, hardworking girl into a strong women fighting for justice. Thula is the kind of character that I look for in books. She is inspiring and relatable. How Beautiful We Were was difficult to read at times but very important and impactful. The village is always helping each other and Thula makes it her life’s mission to help others. I am always interested to get inside characters’ heads, so loved all of the perspectives in How Beautiful We Were. The characters had different experiences and it was interesting to see how they felt and reacted to certain events. I love Imbolo Mbue’s books and will read anything she writes.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Prentice Onayemi, Janina Edwards, Dion Graham, JD Jackson, Allyson Johnson, and Lisa Renee Pitts. All of the narrators did a great job and were the perfect voices for their characters. I am so glad I listened to the audiobook.

Thank you Random House for the gifted book and Penguin Random House Audio for the gifted audiobook.

Full Review: https://justreadingjess.wordpress.com...
Profile Image for Sheena.
573 reviews255 followers
April 23, 2021
Beautiful writing, such poetic prose but so so boring aside from a couple parts. So many lines were worth highlighting!

I liked Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers but didn’t enjoy this one so much because nothing really happens at all. There’s really not much dialogue. A little disappointed but I can see why some people would really enjoy this. Thank you Netgalley for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Book Clubbed.
146 reviews151 followers
February 6, 2021
Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC. Listen to the full review here: https://bookclubbed.buzzsprout.com/15...

This is not a book, but a fable. The problem with fables is that they are supposed to be short, punchy stories. How Beautiful We Were takes a fables’ worth of material and stretches it into an entire book, stretches it so thin that you can see the light breaking through it. Although the light, in this case, is the sweet relief of finishing this burdensome tale.

The story is primarily told in the communal “we” as the village bands together against the evil oil corporation. The characters are defined by one or two attributes, never to change, and the dialogue seems to be ripped straight from a children’s book, so banal they might as well not have spoken at all.

The plot is predictable. Any reader can scan the book cover and understand exactly how this will play out. It might have been a shocking tale sixty years ago, but we all have access to the internet now and understand how corporations operate. The problem with a good vs evil theme is that—even if it contains some truth—it flattens any complexity. We know who to root for. It will be a happy or sad ending, and we will learn nothing throughout, as we already understand the simplistic moral before we even begin the first chapter.
Profile Image for Rose.
259 reviews106 followers
January 19, 2021
I just read How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

This is a story about a small African village and an American oil company. It is narrated by a generation of children, and family members of a daughter named Thula.

Children in the small village are dying, oil spills are contaminating their drinking water.

It is beautifully written and is quite a sad situation. I did enjoy the book, and writing, however I also found it exhausting to read at the same time. For me, the variety of narrators made it a bit of a challenge.

3.5 Stars

#HowBeautifulWeWere #NetGalley

I want to thank NetGalley, Author Imbolo Mbue, and Random House Publishing Group - Random House. For my advanced copy to read and review
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,740 reviews1,188 followers
July 8, 2021
A sometimes mythical/fable-like story of the impact of globalisation, based in a fictional African village suffering from the adverse impact of the oil industry.

This is the author’s second novel after “Behold The Dreamers” (which was about the Cameroonian immigrant chauffeur to a New York investment banker), and was a book she had been writing for long before, but rewrote and published with what she had learned from the success of her second novel.

The book is set in the traditional and fiercly proud village of Kosawa (whose founding legend has the villagers blessed by a leopard to found a village where the children will share its fearsome and dignified nature) in an unnamed African country ruled over by a Western backed (but increasingly autocratic) Dictator.

Kosawa is set above a large oil field and with the strong backing of the government, the village has come to be dominated by the oil extraction of a large American oil company – Pexton.

The author has said that when she first revisited the book in 2016 she was heavily influenced by both the Sandy Hook school shooting and by the impact of the Flint, Michigan water contamination crisis on the children of that City. This lead her to the idea of having large parts of the book narrated in the third party by “The Children” of the village – a group of .

The other first party narrators of the story (in named sections) are members of the family of Thula (born of the same generation of The Children but not one of them).

Before the book opens the life and health of the village has been devastated by the resulting environmental, economic and political degradations – infertile land, contaminated drinking water, dying children, imported workers living Western style in a nearby compound (the villagers refusing to given up their traditional farming lifestyle) and a village elder seemingly suborned by Pexton – all of this enforced when needed by the army.

Further a previous attempt by a small group of men – including Thula’s father (inspired and enraged by the near death of his young son Juba, bought back from death by the ministrations of the village’s twin medicine men) – to travel to the nearby city to plead their case has resulted in their disappearance.

The book begins with a village meeting with three Pexton representatives – one of series of meetings in which the villagers grievances are largely dismissed (or answered with platitudes) by the Pexton group with the connivance of the Village leader. This day though the village madman shocks the village by leading them into holding the Pexton representatives hostage – galvanising some (and particularly a subgroup of The Children – who ultimately become The Five - into long-term resistance), while horrifying others who believe this will just bring further loss and death to the village. Thula’s Uncle Bongo (her father’s brother) resolves to visit the nearby Town to uncover his brother’s fate while the Pexton men are still held hostage (one seriously ill).

The character and actions of the village madman are inspired by the author’s childhood hero – the socialist revolutionary Thomas Sankara and his quote "It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future."

This story then unfolds over many years – told partly in flashback, partly in narration, and with multiple voices.

Bongo’s visit leads to an American-born journalist Austin visiting the village and documenting the story of the village and Pexton which in turn leads to an America environmental and “third-world” education NGO taking up the villagers cause. But it also unleashes a bloody retribution from the government and to Bongo sharing a fate explicitly modelled by the author on Ken Saro-Wiwa. Thula benefiting from free schooling offered to the villagers wins a scholarship to America – where she strikes up a relationship with Austin and throws herself into political and environmental activism there while never forgetting her Kosawan roots – being something of a leader to and funder of The Children, although with her increasing pivot to both non-violent action and her belief that a countrywide political revolution is needed increasingly clashing with The Five’s views focus on direct violent action targeted just at Pexton and the government’s involvement with Kosawa.

Overall I found this a book whose importance was perhaps not always matched by its execution.

The fable/mythical elements of the story including the Greek Chorus and even the book’s entirely fictional setting - in some ways I think detracted from the reality and impact of its important environmental message.

I also think that a crucial part of the story – one of the lengthiest sections towards the end narrated by The Children and leading up to Thula’s return to Kosowa seems slightly ill-judged in its narrative pace. Large periods of action (particularly after her return) are condensed into short paragraphs while pages are devoted to lengthy, rather tedious letters from Thula pre-return setting out her political philosophy and her debates with Austin.

On the other hand some sections are much stronger. I particularly enjoyed a section by Thula’s grandmother (an ever present but hitherto silent character in the village) where she outlines the history of the village and the country through slavery, colonial exploitation and independence (which quickly became dictatorship) and which serves as a background to the impacts of neo-colonialism and globalisation which are the book’s main focus.

And the book’s ending – by another chorus – of the surviving members of the children (contemporaries of Thula and The Five who never got involved in activism). They now see their own children enjoying the fruits of globalisation while seemingly unwilling to realise that those fruits are planted on the graves of other villages like Kosawa around the world is powerful.

The book is also very even-handed and surprisingly non polemical – as an example the author’s acknowledgements make it clear she is a strong Christian but the book is open about the possibly well-meaning but both unwelcome and largely unhelpful impact of some missionaries. And one of the book’s strengths is the questions it poses about what should be the attitude of Westerners to the ravages of globalisation on other countries – none of the interventions however well meaning (including a leading trial attorney who takes on the villages case on a contingent fee basis) really work.

Overall a worthwhile if imperfect read.
Profile Image for Jin.
601 reviews113 followers
October 31, 2021
Eine herzzerreißende, schmerzhafte Geschichte in einem afrikanischen Dorf, was über mehrere Generationen über die Ausbeutung deren Auswirkung erzählt. Abwechselnd kommt ein Mitglied der Familie um Thula zu Wort, wobei die Stimme der Kinder fast wie das Chor eines Theaterstücks/einer Oper zwischendrin ein neutraleres Bild der absolut schlimmen Situation des zerbrechenden Dorfes beschreibt.

Die Geschichte war sehr intelligent zusammengesetzt; wir beginnen beim Kind, Thula, gehen stufenweise zur Mutter, zum Onkel und dann zur Großmutter um dann beim Bruder zu enden. Obwohl wir immer einen Schritt weitergehen in die Zukunft, blicken wir auch zurück in die Vergangenheit und erinnern an den Schmerz und die Liebe zueinander. Am Ende hatte ich das Gefühl einem Kreislauf des menschlichen Daseins beizuwohnen, eine Spiegelung der Vergangenheit in die Zukunft. Hut ab für diese komplexe, aufregende Architektur der Geschichte!

Die Autorin ist eine begnadete Erzählerin. Ihre unglaublich durchdringende Art Dinge wiederzugeben war so real und greifbar, dass ich meist nicht aufhören konnte zu lesen. Obwohl es eine unglaublich wichtige Geschichte ist, die öfter erzählt werden muss, war sie leider insgesamt zu lang und etwas zäh. Aber die Erzählweise hat mich immer weitergetrieben durchzuhalten und zu lesen. Ich finde es lohnt sich die Geschichte bis zum Ende zu genießen. Aber ich könnte mir vorstellen, dass das Buch nicht für jeden Geschmack geeignet ist.

** Dieses Buch wurde mir über NetGalley als E-Book zur Verfügung gestellt **
Profile Image for Alexandra .
847 reviews265 followers
December 5, 2021
Eine aufwühlende Geschichte, wie der Westen und große Konzerne gleich den alten Kolonialherren und Sklavenhaltern mit afrikanischen Dörfern und der indigenen Bevölkerung umgehen, die nur in Frieden auf ihrem eigenen Land leben wollen. Hier kann man ziemlich unvermittelt erleben, was einem kleinen Dorf in Kenia blüht, wenn ein amerikanischer Ölkonzern in der Gegend auf das schwarze Gold gestoßen ist und die Gier nach Petrodollars jegliche Humanität, Menschenrechte und internationale Gesetze in den Hintergrund drängt.

Als Co-Täter fungiert natürlich ein korruptes Regime, das dem Konzern das Land des Dorfes zur freien Nutzung gegen Beteiligung vermacht hat, über das die Regierung eigentlich gar nicht verfügen darf. Diese unheilige Allianz aus Großkapital und afrikanischer Diktatur im Gewand einer vordemokratischen rechtsstaatlichen Regierung schiebt sich permanent gegenseitig die Verantwortung für die Beseitigung der eklatanten lebensbedrohlichen Missstände zu und lässt die verzweifelten Dorfbewohner in einem frustrierenden Ping-Pong Spiel ständig auflaufen.

Die Autorin hat zudem einen interessanten stilistischen Kniff angewandt, indem sie die gesamte Geschichte aus der Sicht der Bewohner des Dorfes Kosawa erzählen lässt. Dies offenbart zu Beginn der Story die riesengroße Naivität dieser Menschen, die wenig mit der Bevölkerung außerhalb ihres Dorfes zu tun hatten, anfangs noch völlig unverdorben an das Gute im Menschen glauben und dadurch ihren Gegnern, für deren ganzes Handeln nur der eigene Gewinn zählt und die als Kollateralschaden die Vernichtung von vielen Menschenleben achselzuckend in Kauf nehmen, haushoch unterlegen sind. Nach und nach entwickelt sich im Dorf massiver Widerstand und auch eine gewisse Abgebrühtheit, eigene Strategien im Kampf ums nackte Überleben zu finden und diese anzuwenden.

Die erste Szene startet schon einmal genial. Die Kinder von Kosawa sind krank und sterben wie die Fliegen, weil von den lecken Pipelines Öl auf die Felder und ins Grundwasser rinnt. Zudem ist der Fluss vergiftet, weil das nahe des Dorfes gelegene Arbeitercamp der US-Bohrfirma Pexton den Müll der Förderfirma einfach ins Wasser kippt, die Luft kann auch nicht mehr geatmet werden, weil man der Einfachheit halber das ausgelaufene Öl anzündet und die Rauchschwaden nach Kosawa ziehen. Die Dorfältesten verlangen vom großen amerikanischen Ölkonzern Pexton sauberes Wasser und die Beseitigung der Umweltschäden. Von der Firma kommen jedoch nur Ausflüchte und Beschwichtigungen, aber kein sauberes Wasser. Einerseits wird auf die Zuständigkeit der korrupten Regierung für die Beseitigung von Umweltschäden und Wasserlieferungen verwiesen, andererseits wird natürlich höflich mit den Eingeborenen diskutiert, nachdem eine Dorfdelegation beim Vortragen ihrer Anliegen in der Hauptstadt verschwunden ist und ziemlich sicher von der Regierung ermordet wurde. Der Manager von Pexton wäscht gleich Pontius Pilatus seine Hände in Unschuld und verweist wie im oben angesprochenen Ping Pong-Spiel wieder auf die Zuständigkeit der brutalen Regierung. Nicht mal sauberes Wasser in Flaschen für die Babys können (wollen) sie liefern, während die Kinder massenweise wegsterben. Bei einem dieser Hinhaltungs-Meetings reißt dem Dorfirren der Geduldsfaden, er stiehlt den Autoschlüssel der Firmenvertreter und nimmt sie als Geiseln, herrlich. Dieser begonnene Kampf wird Jahrzehnte andauern und viele Tränen und Opfer fordern. Es ist, wie wenn eine kleine afrikanische Maus namens David beginnt zu brüllen und Goliath in Gestalt von Pexton und einer korrupten Regierung herausfordert. Wie solche ungleichen Kämpfe ausgehen, ist ungewiss, lehrt uns zumindest die Bibel in Kombination mit unseren eigenen Erfahrungen.

Nach dem Kidnapping passiert zunächst nicht viel. Zwei Soldaten suchen die US-Firmen-Delegation, aber das Dorf kann glaubhaft versichern, dass sie weitergefahren sind. Indes werden die Gefangenen bedrängt, Kosawa zu helfen. Es ist wirklich herzzerreißend, wie naiv die Dörfler sind und den abgebrühten Pexton Manager versuchen, dazu zu bringen, ihr Leid zu sehen, anzuerkennen und die Probleme zu lösen. Plötzlich zeichnet sich wirklich eine Lösung ab, die auf einem Tipp des todkranken Chauffeurs der Firmenvertreter beruht, denn Bongo, der Vater von Thula und zwei seiner Freunde suchen einen US-Journalisten in der Hauptstadt Bezam auf, der in amerikanischen Zeitungen die Geschichte von der Zerstörung des Dorfes erzählen soll.

Als die Regierung in Bezam und Pexton mit dem veritablen Skandal, den der Artikel in Amerika ausgelöst hat, konfrontiert werden, schlagen sie zurück, Soldaten veranstalten im Dorf ein Massaker, dem ein Großteil der jungen männlichen Bevölkerung zum Opfer fällt. Auch wenn das Massaker weltweit Proteste nach sich gezogen hat, passiert in Kosawa ansonsten relativ wenig zur Beseitigung der Missstände bis auf den Umstand, dass sich zumindest die Aktion Wiederaufbau aus Amerika um die Schulbildung der überlebenden Kinder kümmern will. Zudem möchte diese Non-Profit-Organisation auch Prozesse vor US-Gerichten anstrengen. Die Bewohner von Kosawa trocknen ihre Tränen über all die von der Regierung Ermordeten und die durch das Öl noch immer sterbenden Kinder, lassen sich erneut vertrösten und warten geduldig ab, dass sie irgendwann mit fairem Spiel nach den Regeln der Amerikaner Gerechtigkeit erlangen.

Neben der Geschichte des gesamten Dorfes wird vor allem das Schicksal von Bongos Familie beleuchtet. Bongo wurde ermordet, sein Bruder hingerichtet, die Frau und die Mutter Bongos sind in tiefster Trauer. Seine Tochter Thula stellt sich als intelligentestes Kind des Dorfes heraus, und aus diesem Grund wird ihr von der Non-Profit Organisation ein Studium in Amerika ermöglicht. Getrieben vom Wunsch, Sühne für die Toten der Familie und für die des Dorfes zu erlangen, beginnt Thula nun als Vertreterin der nächsten Generation und Gallionsfigur erneut den Kampf gegen den Ölkonzern, beziehungsweise die Regierung und widmet ihr ganzes Leben dem Streben nach Gerechtigkeit und der Erhaltung des Dorfes. Bei diesem Vorhaben helfen ihr natürlich nun ihre Ausbildung und ihre guten internationalen Kontakte. Auch die Männer Kosawas in Thulas Alter kommen in der Geschichte zu Wort, werden selbst aktiv und beginnen irgendwann einen bewaffneten Guerillakampf. Das Ende der Geschichte werde ich selbstverständlich nicht verraten. 🙂

Durch die unterschiedlichen Sichtweisen der Dorfbewohner, die in den einzelnen Szenen fast alle zu Wort kommen, werden sowohl verschiedene Ansichten thematisiert, als auch die Gelegenheit genutzt, Hintergründe aus der Vergangenheit aufzudecken. Das Setting und der Plot der Geschichte sind grandios, dennoch wird der Roman bei mir nicht die Bestbewertung absahnen, weil sich die Autorin bei ihrem Studium auf der Columbia Universität offensichtlich jene amerikanische literarische Unart angewohnt hat, die mich immer sehr nervt. Dieses typische episch breite herumschwadronieren, und die Geschwätzigkeit, die in der US-Literatur so en vogue sind, kann ich persönlich überhaupt nicht leiden. 100 Seiten weniger und straffer hätten den Plot spannender, rasanter und ein Meisterwerk aus dem Roman gemacht.

Fazit: Sehr lesenswert! Trotz der kleinen Längen.
Profile Image for Brown Girl Reading.
346 reviews1,597 followers
April 4, 2022
I highly recommend this beautifully told story about an African village's fight to save themselves from a destructive American oil company that's devastating it and its people. Watch the video below to hear the details of what I thought about this unforgettable book.

" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQFLq... "
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,409 reviews316 followers
March 12, 2021
I read Imbolo Mbue's first novel Behold the Dreamers as a galley and for book club. I jumped at the chance to read her second novel, How Beautiful We Were.

Was money so important that they would sell children to strangers seeking oil?~from How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

The novel is about an African village struggling for environmental justice, powerless, caught between an American oil company and a corrupt dictatorship government.

They are proud people, connected to the land of their ancestors. They have lived simple, subsistence lives, full of blessings. Until the oil company ruined their water, their land, their air. A generation of children watch their peers dying from poisoned water. Their pleas for help are in vain.

School-aged Thula is inspired by books, including The Communist Manifesto, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and The Wretched of the Earth. "They were her closest friends," spurring her into activist causes when she goes to America to study. In America and becomes an activist. Meanwhile, her peers in her home village lose faith in the process and take up terrorism.

How could we have been so reckless as to dream?~from How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

The fictional village, its inhabitants and history, is so well drawn I could believe it taken from life. The viewpoint shifts among the characters.

We wondered if America was populated with cheerful people like that overseer, which made it hard for us to understand them: How could they be happy when we were dying for their sake?~from How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

The fate of the village and its country are an indictment to Western colonialism and capitalism. Slaves, rubber, oil--people came and exploited Africa for gain. (And of course, it was not just Africa...) In the end, they lose their traditions and ancestral place as the children become educated and take jobs with Western corporations and the government.

This story must be told, it might not feel good to all ears, it gives our mouths no joy to sat it, but our story cannot be left untold.~from How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

This is not an easy book for an American to read. It reminds us of the many ways our country has failed and continues to fail short of the ideal we hope it is. And not just abroad--we have failed our children here in America.

I was given access to a free ebook by the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,296 reviews119 followers
August 9, 2021
Mbue begins her powerful novel in the fictional African village of Kosawa. The representatives of an American oil company, Paxton, are meeting with the village elders. They try to soothe the elders’ concerns regarding Paxton’s poisoning of the water through their drilling. The madman Konga storms the meeting and convinces the village to hold the men as hostages to force Paxton to leave in order to restore the land and water. No surprise, events swirl out-of-control.

The result is a multigenerational story with multiple narrators to tell the story of a simple village trying to fight for the lives of their children against an indifferent American company and their own corrupt government. Well-meaning American activists become their allies, but still no meaningful change takes place. The local girl, Thula, goes to America to study and returns as a leader of their resistance movement. They face the daunting challenge of making progress against a hypocritical company adept at corporate double-speak. Are the villagers as mad as Konga to hope for justice against such a large corporate monolith?

Mbue’s tale is depressing, and occasionally confusing with its multiple narrators and shifting timelines. Of note, the narrators on the audio version were excellent.
Profile Image for Lisa.
21 reviews17 followers
April 1, 2020
This novel is set in the fictional African Village of Kosawa, and tells of villagers living in fear due to the environmental degradation and loss of life caused by a greedy American oil company. The people decide to take a stand for justice, which has disastrous results.

The story is told from the perspective of a generation of family and centers around a girl named Thula, who grows up to become a revolutionary.

The novel had a strong premise. I enjoyed the first 15%, then It fizzled out. The author spent too much time describing what the characters were thinking and remembering. I wanted more about what the characters were doing. I also found the author’s writing style difficult to follow. For example, I became frustrated when the author stopped in the middle of a dialogue between characters to describe a memory, but didn't return to the earlier dialogue.

This would have been a DNF, but I wanted to finish since I received the free ARC. I would only recommend this novel to those who have really enjoyed the author’s previous novels and writing style, or those who have an outside interest in the plot.

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Nioke.
149 reviews21 followers
July 3, 2020
I wanted to love this because the premise was interesting but it was just a chore to read. The prose is lovely but it is too long and I stopped caring about the characters and where the story was going. I forced myself to finish and the ending disappointed.
Profile Image for Anu.
365 reviews884 followers
May 10, 2021
Thanks Netgalley and Random House for the eARC!

Have you ever read the infamous Larry Summers "Let Them Eat Pollution" memo? If you haven't, this book is a good reason to do so. Mostly because it represents what would happen if we do, in fact, let them eat pollution.

How Beautiful We Were is Imbolo Mbue's stunning second novel about a fictional village in Africa, Kosawa, and everything that happens to it after the government sells oil rights from that village to a big American oil corporation, Pexton. The story is told by different people in the village, in particular, focusing on Thula Nangi and her family. As people that know me are aware, I am a big fan of any form of non-traditional storytelling, when it's done well. Here. it's done well.

Having multiple narrators, and narratives works well in this story because it offers multiple perspectives into the same issue. The obvious problem with this is that there is some definite repetition of what happened at a particular time, although I do think that in this particular case, that problem takes care of itself. The story isn't supposed to be a recollection of events that happened in chronological order, but rather a litany of how each of these people felt about each event, and then all of them. It is a study in the overt ways, and the subtle ways that patriarchy, racism, and plain ignorance affects the people of the village, just as much as it is a story of what life used to be there, and what it has become. Mbue took a gamble here, with this kind of story-telling, because it could have not worked in really bad ways. It could have been tedious; in fact it barely does skim that line in certain cases, but Mbue is a good enough writer and a strong enough storyteller to be able to pull back before it does.

It takes a leaf out of Jose Saramago's method of using some vagueness to articulate how commonplace these fictional events can actually be. (I'm sure other authors have done this, but I attribute it to Saramago because of how well he does it.) Kosawa could be just about any village in any country in Africa, and Pexton could be just about any big corporation on the hunt for resources. This intentional vagueness works in favour of the story, because Kosawa, and Pexton both work as characters themselves. It's not just the people of Kosawa we feel sympathetic for, but the village itself, for all that it's suffered with its land and water and forest. It's not just the people of Pexton we feel outraged towards, but Pexton itself, hiding behind the loopholes of the law, and sucking the life out of both people and places.

Was money so important that they could sell children to strangers seeking oil? As it turns out, it was. I've worked in development. I can offer theories and statistics about the poverty paradox as well as anyone else. How Beautiful We Were is a work of fiction, so it goes beyond the theories and statistics. It offers spirit, soul, and substance. But best of all, it works because it offers nuance.
Profile Image for Martie Nees Record.
665 reviews136 followers
March 9, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: March 9, 2021

Imbolo Mbue is a formidable storyteller. Gripping from the first sentence to the last, “How Beautiful We Were” is a novel detailing decades of suffering endured by families in a small fictional African village where an American oil company has arrived ready to drill. (Sounds familiar right)? The oil company is in cahoots with their corrupt dictator. Pipeline spills. Children die. This multi-generational novel is told through the eyes of the village children while they are still children, as teens, and finally as adults. Different characters at different stages of their life narrate. However, the storyline is not linear, and slow paced, which can confuse the reader. As the narrators change, the reader learns something new from the perspective of each of them. You will meet a grandmother who was a child herself when the Americans came. She has memories of life before there was an oil company. Her narrations are very different from, Sahel’s, her daughter-in-law.

The village has someone who they appropriately call, the madman. Through him, the author takes an opportunity to pronounce the unfairness to the village by the soldiers. The madman unintentionally pushes the soldiers too far. Blood is spilled. The author ensures that the reader feels just how unsympathetic the government is towards its own people. When questioned the soldiers state how where they to know that he was mad and didn’t understand the meaning of stealing their keys.

Sahel has a daughter, Thula, who didn’t speak for eleven days after the massacre. She is written as a feminist who is inspirational heroine. We meet Thula when she was an intelligent 10-year-old girl. As a teen, she was always a bit different from the other girls. She was not interested in marriage or having a hut of her own. She was interested in education. In 1980 she leaves her village to go to America for higher levels of education. It is in America where she takes part in political activism. She returns in 1988 as a revolutionary.

Mbue creates empathy and feelings of fondness for her long-suffering characters. Their beauty is how when they are not grieving, the villagers find happiness in each other, their village lifestyle, their traditions, and their faith in the spirits. The author’s ability to make every character's narration uniquely important to the novel is impressive and seldom dull. Yet somehow, the dialogue is not as engaging as it should be. Still, the author paints such a gripping picture of people wronged by their government and Western greed that you will become deeply invested in the village and want to jump into the tale and fight with them. Think of the movie, “Erin Brockovich.” “How Beautiful We Are” is the sort of novel that you will reflect upon long after you have read the last page.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in
exchange for an honest review.

Find all my book reviews at:

Profile Image for Claire.
644 reviews279 followers
September 20, 2021
This was a brilliant read and the kind of reading journey I love. Imbolo Mbue takes you back to a fictional African village, which could be in any number of countries, she names many of her characters after cities in those many countries and tells what should be a simple story, about how this village has been affected by the many interventions of both outsiders and by those placed in power in their own country.

Mostly the story is narrated through members of the same family, of Thula and her brother Juba, their mother Saleh, grandmother Yaya, uncle Bogo and then the third person plural (we) of The Children, their age mates.

The issue the village tries to address is the polluting of the river and air, the poisoning of the land, the deaths of children since a corporation arrived and began drilling for oil. Their attempts to reason with whoever it is they can speak to to address their concerns, because this is all happening on their land, result in dire consequences, yet they persevere and each generation attempts to reconcile the problem, each time learning more about the complexity of a situation that is repeated the world over by those who exploit partnering with those in power, and the false hopes provided by those who want to do good and the money making machine of the law and lawyers and the ineffectiveness of courts.

It's brilliantly conveyed, right from the first character Kongo, deemed a madman, the one who first stands up and commits an act of rebellion, the one who sees what others can not see, how it it all will end.
Profile Image for Theresa.
316 reviews1 follower
June 22, 2020

I simply do not have the energy to continue trying to read this meandering and slooooooow story. It is going nowhere. It’s unfortunate because the story itself seems very worthwhile and potentially interesting but the writing just killed all joy in reading.


In compliance with FTC guidelines------I received this book free from a Goodreads Giveaway in exchange for an honest review. The content of this review is not influenced by that fact. The feelings expressed are solely mine. I sincerely appreciate the chance to read and review this book.

Obviously the read dates are wrong. I had to change so the book would not count in my yearly reading challenge.
Profile Image for Marcia.
1,037 reviews104 followers
December 10, 2021
Hoe mooi wij waren is niet alleen het 100e boek dat ik in 2021 heb uitgelezen, maar beslist ook een van de mooiste boeken die ik dit jaar las. Wat een prachtige en ontroerende vertelling is dit.

Imbolo Mbue is enorm gegroeid als schrijver sinds de verschijning van haar debuutroman Zie de dromers. Ze neemt de lezers in haar tweede boek mee in een oneerlijke strijd tussen een dorpje in West-Afrika en een Amerikaanse oliemaatschappij. Aangrijpend en actueel.

Een uitgebreide recensie volgt.
Profile Image for Alex.
630 reviews86 followers
July 8, 2021
My second Advanced Listening Copy from @librofm was Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, HOW BEAUTIFUL WE WERE, the follow up to her bestselling Behold The Dreamers. The novel takes place in a fictional village in a fictional African country, where an American oil company has slowly poisoned the local population that borders the drilling site. Told through the voices of multiple narrators, we hear the intimate thoughts of people desperate for an escape or for a way to challenge the oil company so as to save its children from the ever present risk of death. The audiobook features a full cast and is masterfully performed, managing to drive the story at a quick pace (not always easy with so many narrative voices) and make the reader care deeply for the struggle the villagers are engaged in against Western economic interests. Mbue at times tells too much on the page and occasionally veers into didactic spoon-feeding but otherwise it’s a riveting book, especially in audio format.
Profile Image for Jennifer Blankfein.
379 reviews646 followers
May 19, 2021
Intense and sad - not the outcome I had hoped for when thinking about the characters and all they had been through. full review to come on Book Nation by Jen.
Profile Image for Wendy.
1,609 reviews555 followers
June 27, 2022
Set in Kosowa, a fictional African community where children are dying. The air they breath is polluted, the water they drink is contaminated and there are toxins in the soil that grows their food.
Pexton is the American oil company driven by greed, its drilling and flaring responsible for the suffering of the villagers.
This is the story of Kosowa's 40 year struggle against Pexton and a corrupt government to reclaim its
land and its livelihood.
Horribly sad yet realistic and beautifully written.
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