“Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, How Beautiful We Were 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. “
The novel is a poignant story about revolution and all the losses that accompany it. There were very few moments of joy in the story, which I guess is to be expected given the subject matter. While Kosawa is a fictional village, there are many communities around the world dealing with similar issues. When I read the novel’s blurb (quoted in the paragraph above), I immediately thought of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and their campaign against Shell Oil Company’s activities on their land.
How Beautiful We Were is narrated from the perspective of various people in the village. It is heavily rooted in the traditions and culture of the people of Kosawa, which is quite impressive since Kosawa is a fictional place. While I found the novel inventive and relatable, its main events unfolded in a slow-paced manner that made the book very tedious to read, especially with all the bad things happening in the world right now. The thing that affected me the most about the story was the overall feeling of powerlessness amongst the characters in the novel. I had to drop the novel and return to it several times.
The novel was initially meant to be published in June 2020, but was postponed as a result of the current pandemic. I think this was a good call on the part of the publishers because of how sad the story is. Though it’s a bit of a downer, I think that How Beautiful We Were tells an important story that should be read by more people. Imbolo Mbue’s writing is wonderful: I highlighted many sentences in the novel and it made me question the true cost (and the weight) of revolutionary movements.
I rate this novel 3.5 stars out of 5. I think everyone should read it, just not in the middle of a pandemic (or any sort of funk)—it is definitely not a light-hearted read. How Beautiful We Were will be published by Random House on March 9th, 2021. I received a free advance copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.
Thank you for reading this book review! I’m sorry I haven’t been active on the blog over the past few months, I hope you’re all keeping safe. Does the novel seem like something you would read? Is there any book you’ve read recently that you think you would have enjoyed in a different time? Let’s chat in the comments 🙂