Book Review: Americanah

Thursday 14 January 2016 by

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Book, Reading, HarperCollinsAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published by HarperCollins

SHORTLISTED FOR THE BAILEY’S WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2014.

From the award-winning author of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ a powerful story of love, race and identity.

As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?

Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning ‘Americanah’ is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.

~*~

I’ve been waiting to read this for absolutely ages. Americanah is the new book from literary great, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love Adichie’s writing – it’s raw and beautiful. There is an uncompromising honesty in it, but it is fantastically evocative. With Americanah, she leaves behind the accolades of Half of a Yellow Sun, and begins to explore new realms.

Americanah tells the separate stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, from their childhoods in Nigeria to their individual struggles in America and England. Ifemelu goes to America, but finds that the American dream is not quite what she imagined – she struggles with being black in a world where being black had never mattered to her before. To cope, she starts writing a blog, and with it finds success.

Obinze, on the other hand, finds himself in England illegally, and when he is caught, has to return to Nigeria to find purpose again. In childhood, Obinze was going to America and going to be a great success, and yet in adulthood their lives are switched, and it is Ifemelu is afforded the opportunities. But, are they really opportunities?

Years later, Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria, and to find Obinze and discover what is between them. I won’t give away any spoilers in this respect, because this is really the crux of the novel and there is beauty in discovering it yourself.

Adichie writes about the Nigerian experience in both America and England with unnerving clarity. But these are not huge, seismic stories. These are every day experiences. And they are realised in striking, clean language. There are no literary flourishes in her writing – and it becomes all the richer for it. Perhaps my favourite thing about the novel is her repetition of hair. We meet Ifemelu travelling to get her hair braided to return to Nigeria, and throughout there is an examination of hair – its significance, what it means, what the expectation is. The pressure to conform and the significance of not conforming. It becomes a thread on which Ifemelu’s story hangs. It becomes the metaphor of her experience in America.

Adichie approaches race with bare-faced honesty. There is no hiding behind euphemisms or clichés. Race is a key subject throughout the novel, particularly in America and England, and the white approach to race is picked apart under and unforgiving microscope. There is no drawing back from the “unsavoury” aspects of race, no glossing over. You become hyper-aware – as do Obinze and Ifemelu – of skin colour, and reaction to skin colour. It makes you reassess your own attitudes, own social and cultural conformities. It becomes an all-encompassing question.

Reading this on my ereader, I found myself highlighting passage after passage to keep. It is a mirror, a telescope, a song, all at once. The earth of Nigeria, England and America, blend together between your fingers, rub in your eyes, leaving a lingering scent of modernity and fear and wisdom and adventure. This book gets under your skin and stays there.

I admired Adichie after reading Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, but it is with Americanah that it has become a full-blown love affair. If books were paintings, many novels would be watercolours or impressionist paintings – romantic, ephemeral and open to interpretation. Americanah is a portrait or skyscape. It is bitterly, joyously, boldly realistic. It is the story of modern love affairs, the story of race in the 21st Century. It is the story that people are too afraid to tell.

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