44 pages 1 hour read

Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Imbolo Mbue’s 2021 novel How Beautiful We Were chronicles the many ways one fictional African village fights back against the exploitative practices of an American oil company. Told through multiple narrators, the novel also considers the complicity of the local government. Mbue draws on her personal experiences growing up in Cameroon, a country impacted by many of the same issues that the novel deals with.

How Beautiful We Were was named among the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2021 list and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

This guide uses the first edition of the book, published by Random House.

Content Warning: This novel includes discussion, but not description, of child sexual abuse, sexual assault, and forced pregnancy. It also features prejudice against those with mental illnesses.

Plot Summary

Set in Kosawa, a village in a fictional African country, the novel spans primarily the 1980s through the 2000s. Every other chapter is told from the first-person plural perspective of the protagonist, Thula Nangi, and her friends. Other chapters alternate among the perspectives of different members of the Nangi family.

The novel opens by announcing that the end is near, referring to an ecological catastrophe about to demolish Kosawa. What follows is a flashback that explains how the end arrived.

Colonial and imperial pursuits influenced Kosawa’s country for centuries. Eventually, after the country won independence in 1980, Kosawa was signed over to Pexton, an American oil company, after the country’s government tricked villagers into believing it would bring them prosperity. Pexton has been entrenched for decades, from the time Thula’s grandparents, Yaya and Big Papa, were young, to the novel’s present; its exploitation has yielded almost nothing for Kosawa, though Pexton has profited greatly from its resource extraction. The villagers have repeatedly asked Pexton and the government to mitigate the ecological devastation that Pexton has wrought, but to no avail. A year before the destruction of Kosawa, Thula’s father Malabo and five other men went to the capital city of Bezam to demand help, but they disappeared.

The story’s central conflict is sparked when the village outcast Konga, whose status is the result of a cultural superstition against mental illness, suggests a new plan: to galvanize a revolution. Villagers take Pexton officials hostage and demand the name of someone in Bezam who can help Kosawa. One of the hostages, Kumbum, refers them to his nephew Austin, a journalist for an American newspaper; after being contacted, he writes an article on Kosawa. The villagers decide to have the village medium wipe Pexton representatives’ memories of these events, but the plan is ruined when Kumbum dies of illness. Meanwhile, the government sends soldiers into Kosawa to break up the hostage situation; its interests lie with Pexton rather than its own citizens. When the village medium and his twin brother, the village healer, throw spears at them, the soldiers respond with a massacre.

After Austin’s article is published, a group called the Restoration Movement tries to help Kosawa, primarily by investing in education. Thula becomes a serious student, bucking traditional gender roles; she goes to college in the United States, where she studies protest movements, develops her leadership skills, and falls in love with the now-exiled Austin. While she is abroad, Thula’s friends in Kosawa, growing increasingly tired of waiting for promised changes, destroy Pexton property. Some engage in violence, while others are framed and arrested. As Yaya grapples with the deaths of her family members and feels it is her turn to go, Thula’s mother Sahel and little brother Juba move in with Sahel’s new husband in Bezam.

Thula returns to Kosawa after many years in the United States with the idea that the real problem is not Pexton, but rather the country’s dictator. She tries to rally others to the cause, but following a strong, unmarried woman makes many people uncomfortable. Eventually, her efforts culminate in Liberation Day, which is intended to be the start of the country’s revolution, but actually brings no changes. Juba takes an ideological turn away from his sister, becoming a wealthy and self-involved government official. Thula’s more radical friends take the Pexton overseer and his wife, roping an unknowing Thula into their plan. When soldiers come to rescue the hostages, they demand that all the villagers leave Kosawa. During this forced migration, Thula, the hostage takers, and some soldiers die in an explosion.

The villagers are not allowed to return to Kosawa, and the dictator burns the town to the ground. The elders mourn all the work they put into saving Kosawa.

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By Imbolo Mbue