December Issue 2013
Book Review: Americanah
Of the many contemporary writers emerging from Africa today, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most talented. Her previous two novels, lyrical and keenly observant, were both set in post-colonial Nigeria, against the backdrop of military coups and political unrest. But Americanah, Adichie’s latest novel, despite lacking the high stakes of war and violence of her previous novels, is much more ambitious. Nearing 500 pages, it goes back and forth between today’s Nigeria, America and Britain, tackling the subtle complexities of race and immigration in the 21st century.
When we first meet her, Ifemelu — the main character of the novel — is an accomplished Nigerian in America. She has spent the past thirteen years making a comfortable life for herself, complete with a fellowship at Princeton, a doting African-American boyfriend and a popular anonymous blog where she writes about being black in America. As she sits in a hair salon which specializes in braiding black hair, Ifemelu contemplates going back to Nigeria, her country with which she has been disconnected for more than a decade. Most of the novel after this is in the form on flashback, as we are taken back to a time when Ifemelu went to a secondary school in Nigeria and fell in love with Obinze, the quiet, charming son of a professor. Nigeria is under military dictatorship and Ifemelu and Obinze, like many others of their generation, long to find a life elsewhere. We follow Ifemelu as she gets a scholarship to America, while Obinze briefly lives as an illegal immigrant in Britain before returning to Nigeria and building his life there.
Americanah is a novel about many things, but one of the most prominent themes is that of race. Ifemelu has never been conscious of her blackness in Nigeria, but as soon as she comes to America, she is confronted with race and what it means to be black in modern America. Through Ifemelu’s bold and often funny observations, Adichie comments on the subtle nuances of how race is treated by Americans, both white and black. Ifemelu is amused by how far Americans, in their daily lives, will go to appear politically correct on issues of race. Ifemelu’s white friend describes every black woman she meets as beautiful, until Ifemelu gently informs her that not every black woman is beautiful. There is also an instance when a cashier at a shop is asked to identify a salesperson and the cashier goes out of his way to avoid describing her as black. Ifemelu’s observations, which she describes in her blog, are sharp and witty, and are especially perceptive because she is able to looking at a culture from the outside (Adichie herself went to America to study, and you can feel that Ifemelu’s observations are those of Adichie as well).
Adichie is also particularly skilful in describing the modern immigration experience. Ifemelu and Obinze’s immigration is a product not of war or dire poverty — both belong to comfortable, middle-class families. Instead, their desperation to leave their country is born out of a search for greater choices in life, something to which most people in developing, politically unstable nations such as Nigeria and Pakistan, can well relate. As Obinze, who clings to his illegal life in London, observes,
“They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.”
Adichie recounts both characters’ lives in other countries with honesty and verve, detailing their ups and downs with sensitivity. We watch as Obinze attempts to enter into a sham marriage to stay in Britain, and as Ifemelu is driven almost to the brink of prostitution to survive when she first comes to America. She also describes, with humor and depth, the experience of returning back to one’s country after years abroad (the title of the novel refers to a Nigerian term used to describe people who return home from America with American affectations).
The love story between Ifemelu and Obinze is not as central to the narrative as the book blurb would have you believe. It is a love story well-written, to be sure, and grounded in reality, where visa can effectively come in love’s way. But the ‘epic love spanning continents and years’ thread becomes a little too thin at times, and the sappy resolution of this story seems unnecessarily forced. At times, also, the plot gives way to the author’s opinions about issues she seems to care deeply about. However, this can easily be overlooked because the rest of the novel works so well.
What most holds Americanah together is the characterisation. Adichie is skilled at creating characters which feel like specific people. Ifemelu, while not easily likeable, is a complex character, showing shades of bluntness and entitlement in her views, but at the same time retaining vulnerability and softness. Even secondary characters are well-developed, such as Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, a pampered mistress of a general in Nigeria, and Kimerbly, Ifemelu’s rich white friend. In the end, Americanah is about people, about their often conflicting desires to find a better life and to belong to a place they can truly call home.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2013 issue under the headline, “The American Dream.”
Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.