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How Beautiful We Were: Plot Summary

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The following is a plot summary guide for How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue. The summary contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.

Imbolo Mbue’s second novel, How Beautiful We Were, published in 2021, follows the success of her debut book “Behold the Dreamers.” The book has received critical acclaim and was named one of the top 10 books of 2021 by the New York Times, as well as being a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Through multiple narrators, the book tells a tragic and powerful story of a fictional African village, Kosawa, fighting back against the exploitation of an American oil company. Mbue, who grew up in Cameroon, a country facing similar issues, draws from her personal experiences to craft this compelling tale.

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

How Beautiful We Were Summary

The novel How Beautiful We Were is set in the fictional African village of Kosawa and spans multiple generations, primarily covering the period from the 1980s to the 2000s. The story is narrated through the alternating perspectives of different members of the Nangi family and the group of children they are friends with, including the protagonist Thula Nangi.

The book opens with a bleak announcement of an impending ecological disaster that has befallen Kosawa. The rest of the novel then proceeds to explore how the village arrived at such a dire situation. The impact of colonialism and imperialism on Kosawa is deeply entrenched by the time an American oil company called Pexton arrives.

Pexton has already acquired the rights to the village, and its representatives trick the villagers into thinking that the company will bring them wealth and prosperity. Despite repeated appeals to the company and the government, the villagers receive no help, and their situation only worsens.

A year before the events of the novel, Thula’s father Malabo and five other men traveled to the capital city to demand assistance, but they disappeared without a trace. The story’s central conflict arises when the village madman, Konga, steals car keys from Pexton’s representatives.

The villagers are then presented with a difficult decision: touch the madman, which would lead to their death according to their beliefs, or allow the Pexton men to punish them. This moment of crisis serves as a catalyst for the villagers to consider revolution and fight back against the exploitation they have suffered for generations.

After much deliberation, the villagers of Kosawa decide to take the path of resistance against Pexton’s exploitation. They hold the company’s representatives hostage, demanding that they reveal the name of someone in Bezam who can help them.

One of the hostages, Kumbum, provides the name of his nephew, Austin, a journalist for an American newspaper. The villagers plan to use their medium to wipe the captives’ memory of the events, but their plan is foiled when Kumbum dies from illness.

Austin has already written an article on Kosawa by the time he arrives in the village and learns of his uncle’s death. In response, soldiers arrive in Kosawa, and a violent confrontation ensues. The village medium and his twin brother, the healer, throw their spear in defense, and the soldiers retaliate with a massacre. The incident serves as a turning point for Kosawa, prompting the villagers to take further action to defend their rights and seek help.

After Austin’s article is published, a group called the Restoration Movement becomes aware of Kosawa’s plight and seeks to assist them. One of their core beliefs is that the village children require more education, leading to Thula becoming a devoted student despite traditional gender roles.

She goes on to attend college in the United States, studying protest movements, developing her leadership skills, and falling in love with Austin, who has since been exiled from his home country. Thula’s experiences in the US and her growing leadership abilities set the stage for a powerful and emotional conclusion to the novel.

Thula’s childhood friends in Kosawa become increasingly disillusioned with the lack of progress and broken promises from Pexton, resulting in the destruction of the company’s property and eventual resort to violence. Some of Thula’s friends are framed and arrested, adding to the growing sense of despair in the community.

Meanwhile, Thula’s grandmother Yaya struggles to come to terms with the loss of many family members and feels it’s her time to pass on. Thula’s mother Sahel and younger brother Juba move to Bezam to start a new life with Sahel’s new husband.

After many years abroad, Thula returns to Kosawa with a new understanding of the real problem: the country’s corrupt dictator.

However, her attempts to mobilize the community are met with resistance due to her status as an unmarried woman with a strong voice. Despite her efforts, Liberation Day, intended to mark the beginning of the country’s revolution, brings only limited change to Kosawa.

In the following years, some lawyers join the cause of Kosawa, hoping to bring justice to the oppressed villagers. However, their efforts ultimately prove unsuccessful as they fail to indict Pexton, leaving the community feeling hopeless and frustrated. Juba, Thula’s younger brother, takes a different path and becomes a wealthy and self-centered government official, distancing himself from his sister’s cause.

Meanwhile, Thula’s friends grow increasingly desperate for change and take matters into their own hands. They hold Mr. and Mrs. Fish, the Pexton overseer and his wife, hostage, and Thula inadvertently becomes involved in their plan. The situation quickly escalates, and soldiers are called in to rescue the hostages. As the villagers are forced to leave Kosawa, they discover that Thula, her friends, the Fishes, and some soldiers were killed in a tragic explosion after they evacuated the area.

Heartbroken and devastated, the villagers are forbidden from returning to their beloved Kosawa. The ruthless dictator orders the town to be burned to the ground, erasing all traces of the community’s existence. The elders, who had worked tirelessly to save Kosawa, are left to mourn the loss of their efforts and the tragic fate of their loved ones.

I hope you enjoyed this plot summary for How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue! Happy reading! ❤️