“Americanah” Book Review

str2_ma_1108_p18a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Americanah fiction

It’s difficult to describe Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s award winning novel, “Americanah”  because multiple themes are threaded throughout the novel. From immigration, race, class, objectification, identity, power, and finally love, “Americanah” gives an in depth look of the immigrant experience from the perspective of the story’s main character, Ifemelu.  At the core of the story is her love for Obinze, an innocent connection which deteriorated after a shameful incident. Ifemelu cut off contact with her beloved Obinze and pushed him away. The novel unfolds as the two lovers go throughout their lives without one another until Ifemelu decides to move back to Lagos, in an effort to rekindle their relationship.

Over time it becomes clear why Obinze is the love of her life because in all of Ifemelu’s romantic relationships, she adapts the habits and tastes of her suitors and changes for them. Yet, a part of her remains critical and observant, qualities which aid her in starting her own blog on race and class in America. Her ability to critically analyze, is her true self.

Ifemelu is a challenging woman to love. She acts impulsively and is often selfish. Obinze knows and recognizes her for who she is, their relationship easy in the way only a true partner, a perfect fit can be. Her other partners are a testament to patriarchal norms which require women to be blindly devoted to their male partners, to lose themselves in the lives of their husbands and the whims of their children, to see the female self as substandard and not worthy of adequate care or attention. It is clear Obinze is in love with her from the beginning. His love, clear and present. She grows to love him and in order to fully commit, Ifemelu takes the time to sort herself out first. She learns to love and commit to herself, leaving her successful life behind in the States and going back to Lagos for Obinze. Yet, due to their time apart, the romance between the two is not an easy one and their reunion is messy.

I found the novel enjoyable yet, I often became confused about the time period. Over the course of several chapters, the characters exist in one time period and then the very next chapter, the characters exist in a flashback. The back and forth was often disorienting. And while this love story is epic, it could have done well with 100-200 pages removed.  Obinze’s story in England barely kept my eyes open except for his interactions with an old high school classmate, Emenike. A man who prided himself on knowing information no one else possessed, Emenike is an ironic foreigner from Nigeria, who moves to Britain, and immediately sheds his culture, language and heritage and starts collecting the mannerisms, a white partner, and speech patterns he believes will deem him valuable. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him during this deliberate transformation.

I greatly appreciated Adichie’s direct approach to immigration and race. On pages 260-261, Obinze observes a British woman reading a newspaper article on immigration. Obinze’s thoughts turn to modern immigration being the legacy of colonialism. Often, the disruption of homelands by imperialists who invaded Africa, Asia and Latin America is over looked during discussions of modern immigration. Obinze describes this oversight as a  “denial of history” (261). Regarding race, Ifemelu confronts her blond, blue-eyed, wealthy boyfriend Curt, who looks at “Essence” magazine and labels it “racially skewed” in favor of black women. Ifemelu dares him to visit their local bookstore and find one magazine that prominently features a black woman. Specifically, a black woman with kinky hair, dark skin and recognizable African features. She explains to him how magazines, from makeup tips, to hair products, cater to non-black women (297). Magazines, like “Essence” magazine provides a space for black women to remain visible. Her monologue is one I’ve delivered several times to people who enjoy white-skin privilege and are unaware of the subtle ways in which non-white women are racial excluded in everyday life. While I enjoyed the social analysis from Ifemelu and Obinze, I laughed out loud at Ifemelu’s blog posts on race because they reminded me of my own African friends and conversations we’ve had on race and class based on their observations of the United States, particularly their thoughts on African-Americans.
Adichie’s novel is ambitious, a little too long, hilarious and an epic love story. If you enjoy reading about the intricate lives of immigrants struggling to find their place abroad and traveling with an atypical female protagonist of color finding her way back to the man she loves, than “Americanah” is the book for you.
Below is Adichie speaking about “Americanah” and the intersection of race, love and hair found in the novel.