Not long after the villagers of Kosawa kidnap Pexton’s representatives, a group of national soldiers show up asking questions about their whereabouts. It’s one of the narrative’s first — and least violent — confrontations between the state and the village, and an introduction to the myriad ways in which Kosawa’s residents must scheme in order to avoid the wrath of a government that would think nothing of wiping them out altogether. In the months and years that follow, the villagers try everything they can think of to get the oil company off their land. They meet with an American journalist, hoping that an article might change public (i.e., Western) sentiment in their favor; they travel to the capital to plead with the national government; they consider taking up arms.
In Kosawa, Mbue has created a place and a people alive with emotional range. There is no consensus among the villagers about what to do — whether to free their Pexton hostages after one falls severely ill; whether to lie to the soldiers; whether to take the oilmen’s money; whether to buy guns. The central moral and philosophical conflict of this novel boils down to one between those willing to trust Pexton to do what’s right, those who want to solicit the support of well-meaning American activists and those who see no difference between the two. “Someday, when you’re old, you’ll see that the ones who came to kill us and the ones who’ll run to save us are the same,” Konga says. “No matter their pretenses, they all arrive here believing they have the power to take from us or give to us whatever will satisfy their endless wants.”
The story unfolds in the alternating points of view of individual villagers — the most fully realized of whom is Thula, a young girl who eventually becomes a guide for Kosawa’s resistance movement — and a chorus of children. At their best, the choral chapters have an impact similar to the collective voice of the seaborne brides in Julie Otsuka’s “The Buddha in the Attic,” a sense of hardship dispensed en masse yet suffered individually. But over the course of 360 pages, the constant returns to this collective voice become a bit cumbersome. Describing individuals within their group, the children use the awkward phrase “our age-mate” so often that eventually I couldn’t not notice it. At times, the individual and collective narrators seem to step on each other’s toes, covering the same events and recollections in a manner more repetitive than it is illuminating.
But these are minor quibbles, and easily overlooked given the novel’s incisive appeal to the reader’s empathy. Mbue is masterly at shading in the spaces where greed and guilt intermingle: the loneliness that follows a spouse’s early death, and on its heels the secret desire to be touched again; the wavering between whether to fight the Americans or take their money. Like Carolina de Robertis’s “Cantoras” or Huzama Habayeb’s “Velvet,” “How Beautiful We Were” charts the ways repression, be it at the hands of a government or a corporation or a society, can turn the most basic human needs into radical and radicalizing acts. In one of the novel’s more understated and moving sections, Thula’s grandmother, now nearing the end of her life, admits her one regret about her marriage is having adopted her husband’s predilection for sorrow; she wishes she’d laughed more. “Why did this world become amusing,” she asks, “only when I realized I was about to leave it?”
Indifferent to these appeals to humanity, to the human consequences of its actions in and around Kosawa, the oil conglomerate, Pexton, becomes another of Mbue’s sharply drawn characters. The way that indifference clashes so jarringly against Pexton’s public-relations offensive — its many hollow declarations of support for the village and the loved ones of the dead — will ring instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever witnessed these machinations in the real world, be it by the shores of West Africa or in the sinking oil country of southern Louisiana. So authentically does Mbue render the plain hypocrisy of corporate double-speak that it sometimes becomes difficult to tell whether even Pexton’s own employees believe any of the things they’re saying. At one point in the novel, after an American activist group decides to sue the oil company in order to force it to clean up Kosawa’s land and water, a Pexton executive comes to visit the village with an offer. The company, he says, has decided to give the villagers a share of the profits it makes off their land, though he can’t quite say what the exact percentage will be. “You have to remember, Pexton has a lot of people who want its money,” he says. “The government in America wants some of it. The government here wants their share. All the people who work for Pexton, they need their monthly salaries. But your share is also very important, because together we inhabit this valley, and we must do so peacefully.” The executive then says his employer would be happy to offer the villagers advice on what to do with their newfound wealth, such as use it to move somewhere else.