Monday, 27 May 2013

Book Review: Americanah

I would attempt an answer to the classic 'what is it about?' in summing up Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie's Americanah, but I remember in a flash how much the very question irks Ifemelu, and a sheepish smile lodges itself on my face.

This novel, her newest since the exquisitely written Half of a Yellow Sun, is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, high school sweethearts finding ecstatic joy in their bond of love until strikes and frustrations in the Nigerian system separates them, each to a life overseas that is winding and revelatory. By the time we meet her in the story, Ifemelu has already 'made it' in America: a fellow at Princeton and well-paid sharp-tongued blogger looking at race and identity in America from the perspective of a non-American black; a romantic and cerebral relationship with her black American Yale professor boyfriend, Blaine, whose elite group of friends incite variously interesting views on being black in America; and Ifemelu herself, an intelligent, self-aware heroine who is often funny in her blunt, unapologetic views which she feels the world is entitled to, however unsolicited. Her blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations  About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,provides the novel's most insightful discussions on race and ethnicity in America.

Obinze, for his part, has become a big deal in today's Nigeria, locked in a marriage that isn't unpleasant, but one which gives the impression of a dying ember someone else valiantly keeps fanning, while his mind thrums with boredom. He, too, has a story from his short-lived experience in the UK, a life that is mired in menial jobs and spurts of the fear and panic that accompanies an illegal immigrant, until his eventual arrest and deportation.

They will reunite years later in a new Nigeria, the home that has become the strange familiar, and reignite lost passion in a time that will test and re-test their morals and commitment.

Though at its base the story of star-crossed lovers, Americanah is an exploration of race, identity and belonging in contemporary cultures, both foreign and indigenous, and the often mindless ignorance and widespread generalizations we make of other races outside of our own. It is in turns derisive (snow falling during a children's Christmas play in Nigeria. Really?) and educative, a novel with fluid movements between the complex and the simple, unafraid to laugh at and examine its characters through their flaws and foibles with a searing honesty that makes them believable.

There is a seamless movement between time and space that allows the story to unfold without throwing the reader into a haze of geographical confusion. In this, Adichie paints a vivid picture of Ifemelu and Obinze and the disorientating alienation and struggles of the immigrant hustle. Ifemelu, after countless job interviews and zero offers, is pushed into a sordid sexual act with a stranger, and Obinze into an underworld of toilet cleaning, counterfeit documents and a frenzied almost marriage for 'papers' which catastrophically backfires.

Less harrowing, but no less a pertinent topic, is the subject of the African woman and her hair. In fact, this is a concurrent theme throughout the novel. Ifemelu's angle of the story is mostly told in flashback sequences while she has her hair braided at a salon in Trenton. The Malian and Senegalese women who work in the salon, can feel no kinship with this their fellow African who is way above them with her education and her airs, and yet, over the course of the time she is there, Ifemelu comes close to a shared bond with Mariama who excitedly tells her she is dating an Igbo man.

Adichie observes with a comedic eye the proliferation of weaves and various synthetic styles African women subject their hair to, in a bid to cover up their naturally kinky look. Indeed, the description of the thumping smacks of hitting one's itchy scalp through a weave will resonate with many women, as will the more recent trend towards 'going natural' that many of us have embraced. There is enough fodder for conversations on 'the hair is political' raised in the novel.

Americanah is witty, readable, and not limited to the (mis)adventures of Ifemelu and Obinze, bursting with a rich tapestry of other memorable characters and story lines as it does. It is written with verve in an open yet guarded style that heightens curiosity about its end without causing loss of interest in between. I just couldn't put it down once I started. It thrives on rich dialogues on navigating contemporary cultures in Nigeria and America, and, to a lesser extent, England (spot on with the banal use of 'init' and 'yeah?' that pepper conversations here), and finally, on losing and rediscovering self.

Adichie has done it again, creating a novel that will spark as many intelligent discussions as it will leave a number of toes feeling trodden on in its wake, so gifted is she at stirring up emotions regardless.

Americanah is well worth a read - and then a second.

Have you read Americanah? What are your thoughts on it?

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