I’ve always been drawn in by book covers, and that’s what first grabbed me with this book: a rich pattern of earthy red and brown diamonds in the background with small wooden figures of New York landmarks and little cars in the foreground. And now that I’ve finished the book, I can see how the design bridges New York and Cameroon, and the lives of Jende and Neni, Cameroonian immigrants living in Harlem looking for a better life. And for awhile, they seem to achieve it with Neni taking college courses on a student Visa and Jende chauffeuring for a top Lehman Brothers exec. But their lives take an abrupt turn with the 2008 financial collapse when Jende loses his job and Neni is home with their second child. Mbue juxtaposes the working poor with the 1%: in this case the 1% is represented by Lehman exec Clark Edwards who walks away from the bankruptcy with a new job at Barclays and a continuation of his privileged life while Jende and Neni can’t catch a break to make life in America viable.
First time author Mbue does a fine job capturing their struggles, their relationship, Neni’s feeling of powerlessness, and the culture of New York vs. Limbe, Cameroon. When she homes in on the financial crisis, however, the writing gets a bit stilted and unbelievable. While she surely understands what happened, she wasn’t able to master how to convincingly braid the financial collapse info into the storyline, so those sections felt amatuer-ish. Still, I was captivated enough by the characters and their struggles and triumphs that I read the book in just a few days.