The August convening of our book group at the Oxfam Bookshop in Muswell Hill saw us discussing Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In the author’s own words, this is a novel ‘about race and how we reinvent ourselves. It is about how, when we leave home, we become another version of ourselves.’
The novel is a fresh, adept analysis of how we view and discuss race in our post-colonial, globalised world as well as being both a broader and more acute study of what it means, for us all, to be “me”. This is not to say that the novel is at all didactic or polemic, it is warm, cool and even-handed. For those of you who like a bit of emotion with your intellect, you will be pleased to read that Adichie unapologetically refers to Americanah as “an old-fashioned love story”.
Adichie’s well crafted prose flies the reader assuredly between the lives of her main characters in Nigeria, America and Britain. Ifemelu and Obinze are intelligent teenage sweethearts who, whilst never falling out of love, fall away from one another as a result of being children of their time and place. Ifemelu builds a successful life for herself in America; Obinze fails to do so in Britain…but this unjustly simplifies what is a very dignified, 3D plot.
One of the key things noted about the journeys made in Americanah is that they are undertaken by a new type of immigrant; one well fed and watered but ‘mired in dissatisfaction’. These 21st century examples are not fleeing war or starvation, they are fleeing ‘the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness’.
The catalyst for the plot is Ifemelu’s decision to return home to Nigeria from a well appointed life in America. Because the reader is told of this decision very early on in the novel, one can enjoyable sit back and give full attention to Ifemelu’s reflections on her time in America, the path which led her there and the one that leads her home. As Ifemelu sits and has her hair braided for her return home, Adichie confidently, authentically presses play on the scenes of Ifemelu’s life.
One of the narrative devices used in the novel is the insertion of blog posts written by Ifemelu. Whilst in America, Ifemelu writes an ever flourishing and lucrative blog entitled ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.’
Our one criticism of Americanah was that it seemed to give a sanitized and even at times elitist view of Black immigrant life. Whilst there is struggle present, we felt the absence of the grinding underbelly of crime and grime that undoubtedly exists around the gently lit world of the novel. This could be the reason some reviewers have commented that Americanah lacks the punch of Adichie’s previous novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun.
It is Ifemelu that we follow for the vast majority of Americanah but we are allowed to a glance at Obinze’s life in London. His primary importance is as the other half of the star-crossed lovers but he does have an independently valid immigrant experience which sits in self-effacing contrast to Ifemelu’s. The man Ifemelu meets on her return has not stood still. One of the beautiful things about the conclusion to the novel is that the reader gets to watch as two people who are naturally so perfectly in-tune, attempt to resuscitate a mutual, innate rhythm which has lain dormant as they lived the life of the necessary choices they made.
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