How Beautiful we Were is a story of humanity pushed to the limit by the invisible forces of progress and government. Set in the fictional African Village of Kosawa, the story follows the lives of various children, their families, and at the centre of it all is the story of Thula.

A disaster has befallen Kosawa when a catastrophic oil spill poisons the water. The American company in charge of the pipeline offers to pay compensation, but this is more of an act of face-saving and good public relations rather than a company worth millions doing the moral and legal right by a group of people who by an accident of birth and geography find their lives damaged beyond recognition.

Farming becomes impossible, the remaining population has to work harder to support the sick and ill, and still, any compensation is not forthcoming. Add in the machinations of a corrupt dictatorship at the top level of government, and you have an explosive situation on hand.

The book looks at the resilience, strength and grace of a group of people working incredibly hard against considerable odds to find some form of value and reward in their lives.

Although many tragic events happen in the book, many of which are heartbreaking, it is the breadth and depth of the characters that set How Beautiful We Were above many other books. Mbue writes rich characters, and motivations, adding pathos, real-life struggles with a sense of humour that enriches the characterisation.

The storytelling, dialogue, and powerfully wrought characterisation, and a believable and affecting central premise means that the story of How Beautiful We Were will stay with the reader long after they have finished the book.

Reviewed by Ben Macnair

Published by Canongate Books; Main edition (11 Mar. 2021)
Hardback, ISBN 978-1838851347