Book Review: How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

Read Dates:

July 11 – 18, 2021

Star Rating:



Kosawa, a fictional village in Africa, is ravaged by the impassive American oil company, Pexton, whose spills and emissions are killing children before they even have a chance to start life. One young girl inspires the surviving children to fight back – at any cost necessary.

Full Review:

3 stars for How Beautiful We Were, a fictional story of a spiritually rich, communal village of Kosawa, in an unnamed African country, that grows increasingly ravaged by an impassive and rapacious American oil company. Children are dying. Farmland and drinking water are poisonous. The rain burns the skin. Even the village’s own leader has pledged allegiance to the enemy, Pexton.

The story itself is a masterpiece solely because Mbue is a masterful storyteller. If the editing were significantly more critical, I might have given 4+ stars. How Beautiful We Were is a nearly 400-page fable – that’s about 150-200 pages more than a fable needs to be.

Now- I love a good backstory, but the MANY backstories offered here do not serve to endear the reader more to the characters or understand context better. They often suffered from the “telling not showing” pitfall. There were times when the same event was presented from different perspectives, but no new insight or varying viewpoint was provided. What a pity! The story should be stirring and compelling but I found myself counting down the pages.

I’m not saying don’t read it because there were some redeeming plot points and perspectives that will forever alter my view. When one of the characters arrives in America, I was fully transported into her bewilderment. That’s how I know Mbue is a masterful writer and that I should read her other novel Behold the Dreamers. As a New York resident, I’ve been to NYC more times than I can count but through this book I was able to see it as though I had never set foot on a city block before. So despite my disappointment, do add this book to your list! You will not regret it.

I work for a tech company that aims to ensure not only that oil and gas companies prevent tragedies like those in this book, but also that the companies they contract do, too. So for that reason, this book gave me a lot to think about and even more to research. Alas, this is not a book about a tragedy in a far away place that leaves you thinking “well that’s awful but what can I do about it?” This story instills a sense of place that most of us (myself included) will never truly experience and it embodies the heroic, resilient power of the human spirit.

Bottom line:

Worth a read because it’s an important story, but be ready so skim through some unnecessary pages.

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