I’ve just reviewed Americanah, by Chimamanda Adichie, for a state newspaper.
Americanah is the Nigerian term for someone who has lived in America and returned. The very plain, text-dominated cover of this book belies its richly textured content, full of sights, smells, sensual experiences, realistic colloquial dialogue, and sharply etched character portraits.
Ifemulu, the heroine (I use that word because in many ways, this is a traditional romance) falls in love with Ibenze when they are high school students in Lagos, Nigeria. Not only are they intensely attracted to each other, they are soul mates. When she is with him, she feels confirmed in herself, that her skin fits her. No doubt he feels the same. Yet both are strong, charismatic personalities; this is more obvious with him, as he is described through her eyes, whereas we have to get to know her through her actions and words, in bits and pieces. She is feisty and not afraid of speaking her mind, whereas he is quieter and more centred.
When things in Nigeria are not going well (apparently under the military dictatorship, though the political drama is only vaguely sketched in), Ifemulu decides to go for a scholarship and study in America. Ibenze stays on in Nigeria to finish his degree, and later tries to follow her, but post 9/11, is unable to get a visa. Ifemulu finds her feet gradually in the US, finishes college, has her hair straightened, gets a good job, starts a blog about racism, which eventually is so successful and profitable she doesn’t need a “real” job, and moves through a couple of love affairs. After 15 years, she is stricken with homesickness, and decides to return home. She’s lost touch with Ibenze. But when she does go home, they connect again after a while. There are complications; I’ll say no more.
The good things about the book are the things I mentioned in my opening sentence; Adichie is an accomplished storyteller; her characters, even the minor ones, are sharply etched; her dialogue is dense and convincing; and the secondary theme, of being a black immigrant/foreigner in a white culture, and then of returning home, is fully realised. She misses what she had learned to relish in the more materially advanced culture, but falls in love again with the rich, messy, familiar place called home. In fact, this theme works better than the love story, if only because it runs right through the book without interruptions, and is full of nuances and contradictions. Though when I say without interruptions, there are her blogs, which I confess I skipped. Not compelling reading for me. Perhaps if I were black and lived in America, I would love them.
The love affair, on the other hand, never quite comes to life for me. Ibenze is a little too good to be true—handsome, successful, rich, beloved, good, not corrupted by his success, sober, responsible—despite his confusion. The second and third acts of their romance, and the resolution of their love affair, which is complicated by the choices they’ve both made, is rushed and a little predictable.
There is a third theme: hair. Hair becomes a symbol of racial identity and how it is stripped and deformed. Black women, if they want to fit in, have their hair straightened with toxic chemicals, or have someone else’s hair woven in to create length and sweep. Much of the early part of the novel is written in flashback as Ifemulu sits in a tatty hair salon having her hair braided, in preparation for her return to Nigeria, after Barack Obama has been elected president. She is overjoyed by his victory, but wonders why Michelle Obama has her hair straightened.
I do recommend this book, as an engaging story of life on the edge of two cultures, moving between them, taking some of each, returning to the familiar and deeply loved, and of being black in a world where being white has a charm that is insidious and unreachable.