Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel – I did read her previous two novels some time ago, and have her collection of short stories waiting tbr.
Set in London, the US and Adichie’s native Nigeria Americanah is a wonderfully compelling novel exploring issues of race, and the immigrant experience.
As the novel opens Ifemelu has been living in the US for thirteen years and is contemplating a return to Nigeria. As Ifemelu goes to a hair salon to get her hair braided correctly, she begins to contemplate what her return will mean for her.
“…there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”
Ifemelu’s life in America has not always been easy, she made choices she later became ashamed of – and which led her to turn her back on the great love of her life. Initially living with her aunt and cousin Dike, Ifemelu soon strikes out on her own. Finishing her studies, while working as a child-minder, Ifemelu later starts a blog, a blog about race, taking an uncompromising look at US life from the point of view of “the non-American Black.” Her blog is an astounding success; she even manages to make money from it. During these years Ifemelu has relationships with both white and black men, and even this informs her opinion on race.
“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”
Told in flashback is the story of Ifemelu and her teenage lover Obinze. In their youth Nigeria had been governed by a military dictatorship, and as Ifemelu and Obinze who had been drawn together in secondary school, begin their university education, a series of strikes brings enormous disruption to the university. Ifemelu’s aunt; the mistress of “the general” a government man – takes his child and leaves, to begin again in America following the death of her protector. Suddenly Ifemelu has the chance to go to America too, and so when her visa is granted she decides to continue her studies in the US, well away from the strikes and power cuts. However Obinze is unable to gain entry to the US, and so following Ifemelu’s departure he leaves for England, where he eventually enters the shadowy world of the illegal immigrant in London.
Back in Nigeria years later, Obinze is a wealthy man, married with a young daughter, when suddenly Ifemelu gets in touch to say she is coming back. Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria is delayed by a family crisis. Fearing for her young cousin’s sense of identity, nervous of leaving him behind in an America that has so many different categories of race, and seemingly so little understanding of what that means, it is months before Ifemelu is again driving through Lagos. Once she is back in Nigeria Ifemelu begins working for a magazine, and begins a new blog, but it is quite some time before she plucks up the courage to contact her old boyfriend. When the two meet again, their old feelings for each other are re-ignited, and the two have some difficult decisions to make about their futures.
Adichie is a brilliant story-teller and in this novel she allows her characters, particularly Ifemelu to voice the issues of race, identity and politics that must affect so many people who migrate to other nations. Ifemelu is a character I came to love – she’s not perfect – she makes some frustrating decisions along the way – but she is a brave, outspoken and passionate young woman. Obinze was a harder character to understand, his rise from illegal immigrant in London to a wealthy man in newly democratic Nigeria is mysterious and fascinating, and I was willing him to come through for Ifemelu and be worthy of the faith I had in him. Aside from its exploration of race and identity Americanah is also a love story. Adichie’s sense of place, whether it’s Lagos, London or the US is strong, and as Ifemelu returns and falls in love again with her native Nigeria – so the reader can’t help but love it too.