Review Reviews

In the land of milk and honey

Every good piece of literature contains this paradox: on the one hand, it is absolutely of its time, contemporaneous to the needs of its readership; on the other, it is not explained by any prevailing trend or fashion, but arrives like a bolt from the blue. All good writing, we might say, introduces an eternal value into present time, and Behold the Dreamers is a wonderful, bracing example of this.

The story begins in 2007, in New York, the exciting new home of a young couple from Cameroon who, child in tow, have finally made it to the promised land. They have done so via a fabrication. Jende Jonga has spun a story about fleeing persecution from his wife Neni’s family. It is a little lie told for the sake of a big dream of prosperity, but the reader quickly realises, in what is the book’s enduring epiphany, that the dream as well as the lie are quintessentially American — and perhaps impossible to separate. For Jende’s ticket to riches is the job he scores chauffeuring Clark Edwards, an executive at Lehman Brothers, the investment bank that is about to go bankrupt, its chicanery exposed.

Good life

The plot of the book is thus artfully founded on the juxtaposition of these two families, the immigrant Jonga and the one-percenter Edwards. As chauffeur to Clark, his wife Cindy, and their children Vince and Mighty, Jende acquires a fairly intimate knowledge of their personal lives. Later, when Neni is hired as a housekeeper at the Edwards’ holiday home in Southampton, husband and wife become privy to secrets about their employer couple.

Thus, even as they scheme and dream about green cards and future riches from their tiny Harlem apartment, they are made aware of the astonishing unhappiness that lies beneath the wealth of the Edwards’. All this, however, stays at the back of their minds; it gives them no tritely moral handle on the real meaning of the ‘good life.’ The Jongas — Neni, in particular — know what they have come to America for, and they mean to get it.

Now, one special quality of this book is its empathy with its people; they are too real to be termed characters. The author’s gaze is always tender; she allows for weaknesses without endorsing them. The central idea of America as the “land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing” is interrogated, uncompromisingly, but to greater effect because it is first delineated at length in passages that evoke the uncritical adulation of a Woody Allen movie.

Real as blood

By indulging in such reveries, the author is able, paradoxically, to heighten the suspense that drives her narrative. Behold the Dreamers is dramatic throughout, rather like a stage play, in the manner of its telling, which is predominantly via conversations had and overheard, and set-piece encounters.

Of course, this is old-fashioned, a soap opera narrative that draws us into the conflict of differing ambitions and world-views, of right and wrong, crime and consequence; pre-modern constructs that we may call artificial, but which will always be as real as our impossibly red blood.

A brilliant hero

There must, in such good literary treatment, be a hero, and there is. Jende Jonga is the figure who gives this book its special force, imposing order on what might have been inchoate, a conclusion to what might have meandered, and putting on the courage to be a target for criticism.

It is rare, in modern fiction, to find such a well-described man; timid, sometimes comically so, full of internal restraints, and certainly imperfect, but capable at last of claiming the authority that is rightfully his, and overriding all seductive debate to do what is right.

Indeed, the one respect in which Behold the Dreamers falters is in its failure to clearly appreciate Jende’s decision-making, even though the success of the book turns on this and not on the hedging of bets.

As America plunges deeper into political and social turmoil, its defining fantasy as a can-do land of opportunity is in dire need of reappraisal. Behold the Dreamers is, therefore, both timely and enlightening. There is not much more one can ask of a novel.

The writer is a novelist whose most recent book is T'he Persecution of Madhav Tripathi'.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 5:37:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/in-the-land-of-milk-and-honey/article19851906.ece

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