How Beautiful We Were: A Novel - book cover
  • Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition
  • Published : 01 Feb 2022
  • Pages : 384
  • ISBN-10 : 0593132440
  • ISBN-13 : 9780593132449
  • Language : English

How Beautiful We Were: A Novel

A fearless young woman from a small African village starts a revolution against an American oil company in this sweeping, inspiring novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Behold the Dreamers.

ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times, People ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, The Christian Science Monitor, Marie Claire, Ms. magazine, BookPage, Kirkus Reviews

"Mbue reaches for the moon and, by the novel's end, has it firmly held in her hand."-NPR

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 of a people living in fear amid environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of cleanup and financial reparations to the villagers are made-and ignored. The country's government, led by a brazen dictator, exists to serve its own interests. Left with few choices, the people of Kosawa decide to fight back. Their struggle will last for decades and come at a steep price.
Told from 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 on to its ancestral land and a young woman's willingness to sacrifice everything for the sake of her people's freedom.

Editorial Reviews

"Sweeping and quietly devastating . . . How Beautiful We Were charts the ways repression, be it at the hands of a government or a corporation or a society, can turn the most basic human needs into radical and radicalizing acts. . . . Profoundly affecting."-The New York Times Book Review

"What a stunningly beautiful writer Mbue is, and how lucky we are to have her stories in the world."-USA Today

"It's a heartbreaking and relevant story that seeps into your bones, quickly engulfs you and doesn't let go."-The Seattle Times

"Superb."-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Tragic, wrenching . . . The people of Kosawa sear themselves into your consciousness."-The Boston Globe

"Imbolo Mbue crafts an aching narrative about greed, community and perseverance."-Time

"Mbue's remarkable storytelling makes this book shine."-Ms.

"This epic and empathetic saga shines a truthful albeit unflattering light on globalization."-Shelf Awareness

"Insightful, heart-stirring."-The Philadelphia Inquirer

"A generation of narrative voices, many of them children, shape this sweeping, elegiac story of capitalism, colonialism, and boundless greed, reminding us of the myriad ways we fail to make a better world for our children."-Esquire

"A David and Goliath story for our times, a riveting tale of how people coming together to make change can topple even the fiercest, best-financed foe."-O: The Oprah Magazine

"Imbolo Mbue's revelatory novel of a fictional African village ruined by Big Oil is a mighty addition to the stacks."-Elle

"Among the many virtues of Mbue's novel is the way it uses an ecological nightmare to frame a vivid and stirring picture of human beings' asserting their value to the world, whether the world cares about them or not. One can both grieve for Kosawa and be inspired by its determined fight for life."-Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"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.' It is a masterful novel by a spellbinding writer engaged with the most urgent questions of our day."-David Ebershoff, bestselling author of The Danish Girl

"Imbolo Mbue has given us a novel with the richness and power of a great contemporary fable, and a heroine for our time."-Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend, winner of the National Book Award

"Imbolo Mbue is a storyteller of astonishing gifts. How Beautiful We Were reminds me of how interconnected we remain, no matter who or where...

Readers Top Reviews

Hazel MacLennan Mi
Slow start but once I got into it I couldn't put it down. Narrated from many different aspects so occasionally I had to remind myself who was telling the story.
Initially I enjoyed this book but i nearly gave up on finishing it 3 times. Had it not been a book club book I would have not have finished it. It became repetitive and I felt the story could have been told in a more concise manner. Very depressing read and very frustrating ending.
Kelly F
How Beautiful We Were was a tragic story of greed, privilege, oppression and environmental abuse. It follows a small fictional African village, the people of which are reliant solely on the land and each other until and American oil company comes and begins drilling their beautiful land leading to destruction, illness and death. The community goes from passive to angry over this time as they suffer grave losses. At the centre of the story is a young girl named Thula, during her development through her own beliefs and exposure to human rights activists outside of her village, we see her become a force to be reckoned with while her people face this injustice. Imbolo was able to write a story which was sad while still being lyrical. I listened to the audiobook and the narrators must be commended for their portrayal of this story. The characters and atmosphere were rich and you could see how their frustrations became apparent as would anybody’s after years of neglect and abuse by authorities. I definitely rooted for them. Overall this was a great book and definitely I’ll be going back to try her first book!
Robert B. Lamm
I enjoyed Ms. Mbue's first book, "Behold the Dreamers," though I thought it was a bit superficial. However, the skill was definitely there, and I was hoping that this, her second book, would be the fulfillment of the talent she clearly has. For two-thirds of the book, her talent was on great display, and it was brilliant. One of the brilliant strokes was using different narrators, so that you got to see the setting, the plot, and the characters, particularly the heroine, through different lenses. The narrators included the heroine's family members and an anonymous group referred to as "The Children," a kind of Greek chorus that is involved with the story but at a bit of a remove. However, it is this last group that renders the last third or possibly last quarter of the book flaccid. The Children narrate the last segment dispassionately -- almost "then this happened, then that happened.” Since the passion behind the rest of the book is so tangible and so gripping up to this point, the absence of passion deprives the book of the emotional impact it deserves. Some might say that this is a minor quibble, but for me it just let the air out of the balloon (with apologies for the mixed metaphor) in a way I found very disappointing. It's hard to tell if Ms. Mbue just didn't know how to end the book with the passion that infuses it up to this point, or if there is some other reason, but for me it just seemed flat. Perhaps phrasing it another way is that I wanted to finish this book begging for more, but when it ended it just, well, ended.
switterbug/Betsey Va
It reads like a fable, in a (fictional) village in Africa, Kosawa, where traditional animists in a tight-knit community have lived for many generations. The corporate interests of a (fictional) oil corporation, Pexton, has exploited their land and killed its children with surplus toxic waste. Oil spills, gas pipe leaks, and other deadly hazards and chemicals have eradicated half the child population, by slowly poisoning their water. The adults don’t get sick, and they bury their babies and the babies of their friends and family. The population feels helpless in the face of these oil tyrants, and one member is even in cahoots with them. This is the epic story of a people who choose to fight back, in small and, later, more activist measures by an unforgettable character named Thula. Mbue’s writing is lyrical and intimate, and is deeply satisfying to read. “We had no Sakani for guidance, no one to help us comprehend what we were living through, so we crawled from one day to the next, too weakened to rise. How could we have been so reckless as to dream?...Because we carry the blood of men who stood on a land between two rivers and received it from the Spirit?...If our forefathers had known of the oil beneath their feet, would they have so gladly bequeathed it to us? They thought we’d never know such degradation, because we carry the blood of the leopard, but if they had seen the extent of our enemies’ powers, their beliefs would have turned to ashes.” I said it reads like a fable, but the thrust of the story is true, for many in poor or unfortunate African villages, for people who lacked the sophisticated urbanization of first world countries that came to exploit them. But this story isn’t just about being victimized--the character of Thula, a bright and courageous woman, will disabuse you of that notion. The story has many layers—about endurance, righteousness, colonialism, revolution, spirit, ancestry, and the love of family. You won’t be dry-eyed at the ending!

Short Excerpt Teaser

Chapter 1

We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? When the sky began to pour acid and rivers began to turn green, we should have known our land would soon be dead. Then again, how could we have known when they didn't want us to know? When we began to wobble and stagger, tumbling and snapping like feeble little branches, they told us it would soon be over, that we would all be well in no time. They asked us to come to village meetings, to talk about it. They told us we had to trust them.

We should have spat in their faces, heaped upon them names most befitting-liars, savages, unscrupulous, evil. We should have cursed their mothers and their grandmothers, flung pejoratives upon their fathers, prayed for unspeakable calamities to befall their children. We hated them and we hated their meetings, but we attended all of them. Every eight weeks we went to the village square to listen to them. We were dying. We were helpless. We were afraid. Those meetings were our only chance at salvation.

We ran home from school on the appointed days, eager to complete our chores so we would miss not one word at the assembly. We fetched water from the well; chased goats and chickens around our compounds into bamboo barns; swept away leaves and twigs scattered across our front yards. We washed iron pots and piles of bowls after dinner; left our huts many minutes before the time the meeting was called for-we wanted to get there before they strode into the square in their fine suits and polished shoes. Our mothers hurried to the square too, as did our fathers. They left their work unfinished in the forest beyond the big river, their palms and bare feet dusted with poisoned earth. The work will be there waiting for us tomorrow, our fathers said to us, but we'll only have so many opportunities to hear what the men from Pexton have to say. Even when their bodies bore little strength, after hours of toiling beneath a sun both benevolent and cruel, they went to the meetings, because we all had to be at the meetings.

The only person who did not attend the meetings was Konga, our village madman. Konga, who had no awareness of our suffering and lived without fears of what was and what was to come. He slept in the school compound as we hurried along, snoring and slobbering if he wasn't tossing, itching, muttering, eyes closed. Trapped as he was, alone in a world in which spirits ruled and men were powerless under their dominion, he knew nothing about Pexton.

In the square we sat in near silence as the sun left us for the day, oblivious to how the beauty of its descent heightened our anguish. We watched as the Pexton men placed their briefcases on the table our village head, Woja Beki, had set for them. There were always three of them-we called them the Round One (his face was as round as a ball we would have had fun kicking), the Sick One (his suits were oversized, giving him the look of a man dying of a flesh-stealing disease), and the Leader (he did the talking, the other two did the nodding). We mumbled among ourselves as they opened their briefcases and passed sheets of paper among themselves, covering their mouths as they whispered into each other's ears to ensure they had their lies straight. We had nowhere more important to be so we waited, desperate for good news. We whispered at intervals, wondering what they were thinking whenever they paused to look at us: at our grandfathers and fathers on stools up front, those with dead or dying children in the first row; our grandmothers and mothers behind them, nursing babies into quietude and shooting us glares if we made a wrong sound from under the mango tree. Our young women repeatedly sighed and shook their heads. Our young men, clustered at the back, stood clench-jawed and seething.

We inhaled, waited, exhaled. We remembered those who had died from diseases with neither names nor cures-our siblings and cousins and friends who had perished from the poison in the water and the poison in the air and the poisoned food growing from the land that lost its purity the day Pexton came drilling. We hoped the men would look into our eyes and feel something for us. We were children, like their children, and we wanted them to recognize that. If they did, it wasn't apparent in their countenance. They'd come for Pexton, to keep its conscience clean; they hadn't come for us.

Woja Beki walked up to the front and thanked everyone for coming.

"My dear people," he said, exposing the teeth no one wanted to see, "if we don't ask for what we want, we'll never get it. If we don't expunge what's in our bellies, are we not going to suffer from constipation and die?"

We did not respond; we cared nothing for what he had to say. We knew he was one of them. ...