I’m so glad I finally got around to reading this book, after years of guiltily skimming past its spine on my bookshelf. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, though I’ve read and loved her two short non-fiction works, We Should All Be Feminists (which you must read if you haven’t already) and Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. But this is the first time I’ve truly immersed myself in her invented world.
On the surface, this is a love story. It is the story of two high school sweethearts, outspoken and tough Ifemelu and self-contained, America-obsessed Obinze. But that description would sell this book short. It is about so much more – the political and economic system in Nigeria, immigration, culture shock, poverty, race, homesickness, sexism, ambition, success, failure, determination and, yes, also love – but not just the love between a girl and a boy or a man and a woman, all the different kinds of love we experience in our lives.
Ifemelu is the main character and most of the book is told from her perspective – starting with her childhood in Nigeria, her acceptance into a university in the United States, and her assimilation (or lack thereof) into American culture. Ifemelu is a wonderful character through whom we experience a view of America not often encountered in literature. She is a black African in America – which is very different from being African-American. This distinction is what comes to define Ifemelu in ways she did not know to expect. Coming from Nigeria, where race is not fraught with the same discomfort and social imposition, America is baffling to Ifemelu. She is suddenly treated as someone wholly different from who she knows herself to be. Race in America is something that overshadows every social interaction, and yet is never openly addressed. It changes everything in her daily life – from her job prospects to the part of town she lives in to how people look at and talk to her.
She eventually does find a place in her new country, and settles into a slightly uncomfortable normal. She begins a blog that becomes wildly successful, continues her education at an Ivy League university and even finds a relationship that mostly works. But after years in America, Ifemelu still doesn’t quite feel like she fits in. There’s a part of her, a growing part, that is persistently homesick. And so she makes the difficult decision to return home, to see if it is how she remembered and if she can feel more herself there than she does in America. (This isn’t a spoiler – the book begins with this decision, then works its way back through her time in America, telling the story that has led her here.) This decision runs counter to many assumptions that are made, both by readers and by other characters in the book – assumptions on the relative desirability of a life in Nigeria (or Africa as a whole) versus one in America, and leaves her fighting the constant current of immigration towards the west in order to return home.
Though the majority of the book is told from Ifemelu’s perspective, we also get smaller sections where we follow Obinze after the two are separated. We see his disappointment at being refused over and over for an American visa, his restlessness and eventual decision to move into the shadow world of undocumented life in the UK, his return home and business success (again, this is in the beginning and we work back through his story). His experiences, though also difficult and jarring, are not the same as Ifemelu’s, though the common ground is a sense of otherness that never dissipates.
The real draw of this book isn’t the story; it’s the writing. Adichie has the ability to, using simple language, create a complex emotional landscape and pull characters into being to such an extent that you would swear they’re sitting in the room with you, telling you their own story. Ifemelu, in particular, felt as real to me as any person I’ve ever met. This leads me to the only complaint I have about this book – that Obinze’s sections were not as strong as Ifemelu’s. They were important so we could understand the experiences he had on his parallel journey, but it felt like they were included solely for this purpose. They lacked the emotional impact of Ifemelu’s and didn’t flow as easily across the page. However, this could be more a product of Adichie’s amazing ability to draw a strong female character (Obinze’s mother was my second favourite character in the book, despite her small role in the story) and the fact that Obinze got a much smaller page count and therefore simply wasn’t as developed. Obinze’s sections were fine, they just suffered in comparison to the beauty and brilliance of Ifemelu. I’d be curious to hear from those who have read more of Adichie’s work whether they have found her female characters to be better developed than the men in general, or if that was just the case for this book.
Adichie also has a rare knack for taking many different themes and weaving them seamlessly into the narrative so that you are aware of them, but they don’t take away from the enjoyment of a story well told. Her primary themes in this novel are race and feminism – and both underpin Ifemelu’s struggles throughout the book – but many others were also apparent. She draws many conclusions without stating them overtly, and as such they are more powerfully received.
This isn’t a short book, but that’s not why I spent a month reading it. I purposely read it slowly, letting a few chapters sit for a week before reading more, so that I could really think through everything Adichie had given me to consider. This is a book that could easily be read through like any page-turner of a novel, but it’s also one that does well with more spacing and digestion. There are layers here, and you can choose the depth to which you wish to read.
I highly recommend this book to everyone who enjoys character-driven, painstakingly developed literary fiction, but also to anyone who wants to have their understanding of culture, race, womanhood and relationships challenged. I think it’s not only a beautifully-written and enjoyable read, but one that’s important if you value diversity in your reading material and want a chance to experience a perspective you’ve probably never come across before. I have a feeling it’s a book that is going to stick with me for a long time, and one that I’ll often return to in my mind (and possibly to re-read) when I’m considering the themes it tackles or reading another book about the immigrant experience. I expected a lot from Adichie after reading her short books, and she certainly delivered.
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland. – Goodreads
Book Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published By: Anchor
Released: March 4, 2014 (originally released May 14, 2013)
Genre: Literary Fiction
Date Read: May 28-June 28, 2017