This story begins in 2007, when Obama was running for president on a campaign of hope and realizing one’s dreams, and the world was as yet unaware that the global economy was about to be thrown into turmoil.
The worst financial crisis since 1929 began after large Wall Street banks created huge amounts of esoteric debt instruments composed of bundles of risky (subprime) home mortgages. [A “debt instrument” is legally enforceable evidence of a financial debt and the promise of timely repayment of the principal, plus any interest. A “subprime loan” is a loan to individuals who have been turned down by traditional lenders because of their low credit ratings or other factors suggesting they have a reasonable chance of defaulting on the debt repayment.] Theoretically, the risk associated with subprime loans was mitigated by pooling large numbers of them together, then selling the packages to other investors. [Somehow, in spite of the alleged decreased risk, the big banking houses were more than eager to offload them.]
People who thought they could never escape apartment living recklessly heeded the siren call of realizing “the American dream.” Easy credit allowed them to purchase homes without down-payments, even when they could not realistically ensure they could pay their mortgages. This in turn enhanced the demand for housing, creating a temporary “bubble” in real estate prices. When many mortgagees found that they owed more on their houses than those houses were worth, and/or that their incomes were not high enough to pay their mortgage rates (often raised by the secondary purchasers of the mortgage packages), they began to default on their loans in record numbers.
Relatively sophisticated large investors [also “dreamers” – of more wealth] found themselves with greatly devalued or worthless paper. Bear Stearns faced insolvency first, followed by Lehman Brothers, an even bigger investment bank. The Lehman bankruptcy roiled financial markets for months thereafter.
Among those hardest hit by the collapse were recent migrants, who had come to America seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
The main protagonist in this book, Jende Jonga, 37, was just such an immigrant from Cameroon. He arrived in Harlem in 2004, and worked hard to save enough money to bring over his wife Neni, 33, and son Liomi, now six years old. Both Jende and Neni longed to stay in America. Neni wanted to become a pharmacist, which was not a realistic goal in her home country. Jende explained to his new employer that while he, like Neni, loved his home back in Cameroon:
“…my country is no good, sir…. It is nothing like America. I stay in my country, I would have become nothing. My son will grow up and be poor like me, just like I was poor like my father. But in America, sir? I can become something. I can even become a respectable man. My son can become a respectable man.”
Jende still didn’t have papers to stay permanently, but had a somewhat-shady immigration lawyer helping him. He hadn’t made much money either from driving a taxi, what with not only trying to save some of his wages, but to send what he could to his family in Cameroon. That situation changed when he got a well-paying job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers. Jende was also tasked with driving around Clark’s wife Cindy and their little boy Mighty.
Meanwhile, the mortgage crisis was building, unbeknownst to the holders of loans. Jende overheard Clark in phone conversations worrying about the future of Lehman, but Jende didn’t understand the complex financial instruments being discussed, nor what it implied for the rest of the country.
Jende did come to understand that in spite of all the money, privilege, connections, and benefits available to the Edwards family, they had their own sources of fears and heartaches. While Mbue presents these with sympathy, she occasionally can’t resist some wry social commentary, as when the wealthy friends of the Edwards worry that a financial downturn meant they might have to fly coach, sell their lavish vacation homes, or – the biggest nightmare – clean their own homes!
Mbue also uses the character of Vince Edwards, who is Mighty’s older brother, to act as a “Greek chorus.” Vince claims to deplore the injustice of the capitalist system and the mindlessness of the masses who (literally) buy into it:
“People sit on their couches and watch garbage interrupted by messages to buy garbage which will create a desire for more garbage. They go to their computers and order from incredibly horrible corporations that are enslaving their fellow humans and pretty much destroying any chance of children growing up in a world where they can be truly free. But hey, we have our material comforts and we’re saving money and corporations are creating sixty-hour-a-week jobs with sick leave so what does it matter if we’re complicit?”
Somewhat ironically, Vince’s lifestyle, as anti-establishment as it is, is only possible because of his privilege. And somewhat humorously, Jende just dismisses Vince’s rants as a product of Vince’s resentment that his father isn’t home more.
Then the characters’ dreams all seem to go bust at once. The Lehman Brothers disaster ripples down from the very top, as demonstrated by the effects on the Edwards family, extending to those at the bottom, some of whom, like Jende, relied on employment by the rich.
While the author does show suffering from the fallout of the financial crisis at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, in that particular dimension of the story she pays more attention to those at the top. She wrote in an Afterword that she had to push herself to develop empathy for the Edwards while writing the book, and I think her emphasis on them reflects that effort.
In any event, Jende’s family is much more affected by their immigration status than by the financial upheaval, and by the byzantine world of immigration law. This thorny subject gets fair treatment by the author, with her inclusion of both positive and negative behaviors by all relevant actors.
On the other hand, she largely elides over the effects of the financial crisis outside of how they touched these two families. She does not mention – even through Vince – the profound injustice of the government’s extension of rescue measures to those with huge assets, while leaving “average” Americans to find their own way out of the holes dug for them. What happened to their dreams? How much, the reader might wonder, did that contribute to the bitter outcome of the 2016 election?
But all of that is undoubtedly beyond the purview of this story. For those looking for insight into the lives and struggles of immigrants, however, which remains a salient issue in the present day, this book provides an excellent way to gain insight.
Discussion: The writing in this book is excellent. The author successfully shows multiple sides of the debate raised by immigration and by disparity of wealth, without seeming to inject bias. It is up to the reader to decide how to distribute sympathy or blame.
It is also a story about power relationships, and how they can shift, not only in society generally, but especially with respect to the roles of women – within and without the bonds of marriage. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this story is the impotency felt by both Neni and Cindy, and their reactions to that unfairness.
The author plumbs other power relationships as well – between rich and poor, white and black, and fathers and sons – but only obliquely. The reader must do the work, making it more satisfying than a book that hammers in its messages.
Is this book tragic? In part. But it also offers readers a balm in the form of the redemptive power that can come from the bonds of family. Additionally, it shows the ability of at least some characters to pick themselves up after getting kicked down. Dreams may crash and die, but for those with hope, gumption, and perhaps luck, new dreams can take their place.
Evaluation: This beautifully written book was a joy to read, for its literary qualities as well as for the engrossing story. It well deserves the awards it received, including the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction Longlist, PEN Open Book Award Longlist, PEN/Faulkner Award, and ALA Notable Books for Adults for 2017.
Published in the U.S. by Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016