This is my review of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Bright and from an early age too outspoken for her own good, Ifemelu is made aware of racial differences for the first time when she leaves Nigeria to study in the States, where, after a rocky start, she achieves success with a Princetown fellowship and much-read “lifestyle” blog with a focus on American race relations.
We know from the outset that, a more than a decade on, Ifemelu decides to dump her latest longterm lover and comfortable life in America , in order to return to Nigeria. It gradually becomes clear that this is just another example of her apparently capricious tendency to disrupt an enviable situation because “There was a feeling I wanted to feel that I did not feel”. One suspects this is because her life can never be complete without the love of her first boyfriend Obinze, “the only person with whom she had never felt the need to explain herself”, who after an unsuccessful attempt to emigrate to Britain returns to become a successful businessman in Nigeria.
What could be reduced in summary to a corny love story becomes engrossing in the hands of a skilful storyteller, who develops a wide range of mostly convincing characters. For me, this is the kind of novel one does not wish to finish, absorbed by the vivid sense of place, strong often funny dialogues and sharp insights into both Nigerian society and different racial groups in America. The author made me appreciate for the first time the difference in outlook between American Africans, with a strong sense of their own culture, and African Americans burdened by the injustice of past slavery and current prejudice. I now look on African hair with new eyes, having been made aware of the dangers of chemicals used to straighten it and the effort required to create a natural-looking Afro style.
I agree that the book is technically too long (although I didn’t mind since I enjoyed reading it), the frequent verbatim blogs often seem contrived as vehicles for the author to express her personal observations on American society. Perhaps because there is an element of autobiography in the tale, she appears a little too forgiving of the at times ruthless Ifemelu who casually abuses a close friendship by making Ranyinudo’s personal life the subject of a blog for public consumption, and who seems to feel no compunction over breaking up a marriage, too easily justified by the belief it is built on sand. Some of the privileged American dinner party conversations seem artificial and pretentious, but may well be realistic. Nigerian society is painted in an unflattering light, as corrupt, materialistic, superstitious and socially divided as any western class system. There is a troubling moral ambiguity in the implication that Obinze’s emotional detachment from his lifestyle somehow absolves him from the guilt of enriching himself through working for a wheeler-dealing crook.