How Beautiful We Were

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Imbolo Mbue: How Beautiful We Were (2021, Canongate Books)

English language

Published March 11, 2021 by Canongate Books.

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4 stars (2 reviews)

From the celebrated author of the New York Times bestseller Behold the Dreamers comes a sweeping, wrenching story about the collision of a small African village and an American oil company.

We should have known the end was near.

So begins Imbolo Mbue's powerful second novel, How Beautiful We Were. Set in the fictional African village of Kosawa, it tells of a people living in fear amid environmental degradation wrought by an American oil company. Pipeline spills have rendered farmlands infertile. Children are dying from drinking toxic water. Promises of cleanup 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 will last for decades and come at a steep price.

Told from the perspective of a generation of children and the family …

9 editions

A story which rings uncomfortably true

3 stars

How Beautiful We Were is an environmental novel exploring how an American oil company's irresponsible practices and lack of care causes the gradual death of a small African village, Kosawa, from pollution. It'a David and Goliath story of a powerless people attempting to establish their right to Not have their farmlands regularly flooded by leaking oil pipes and Not to have their river used as a dumping ground for industrial waste. In the face of commercial and political greed through, and with the distant decision makers unaffected personally, Kosawa's Sisyphean struggle will take generations to be resolved.

Having already read a couple of early reviews, I was prepared for the change of pace that occurs after about a fifth of the novel. It's a realistic reflection of the changes of mindset in Kosawa, but I did find the device to be a little disconcerting as a reader. I wondered if …

Review of 'How Beautiful We Were' on 'Goodreads'

4 stars

I loved this novel, which takes place in a fictional village in a country like Nigeria. The plot is ostensibly about villagers who fight back, across generations, against an American oil company whose drilling operation is poisoning their village, but is ultimately about the way that colonialism and capitalism inevitably poison everything. The prose is simple but lovely, and the characters are fully-realized and easy to empathize with. The story was never predictable. I would definitely recommend it.


  • Fiction, political
  • Africa, fiction
  • Fiction, nature & the environment