Book Review: Americanah

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author

Book Review: Americanah

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

Hardcover 2013; paperback 2014

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ifemelu and Obinze, two teenagers in Lagos, Nigeria, are smitten from the moment they first meet. But once they move on to university, their lives take on a downward spiral. Military dictatorship leads to frequent university strikes, forcing Ifemelu and Obinze, along with many other students, to travel to other countries for better opportunities. Ifemelu heads to America with a scholarship to pursue her studies, but Obinze, who intended to join her after he graduated, is refused an American visa. Instead, with the help of his mother, he heads to London to live as an undocumented immigrant.

Before these two teenagers parted, they had a plan, which was to stay in touch until they would reunite in America. But unfortunately, the more Ifemelu settled in, the more she distanced herself from Obinze. While she settled in to her new life, running a successful race blog and dating a rich man, Obinze worked a dead-end job and crept around the streets of London in constant fear, quietly attempting an arranged marriage for his visa. Distance and lack of communication severed their connection in a matter of months.

But years later, even though Ifemelu is quite content in America, and Obinze, who has a wife and a child, is a wealthy businessman in Nigeria, both do not feel as if they are living to their fullest potential. The dullness of their everyday lives makes them feel a constant longing for something more. And despite the chaos of their new lives and the deafening silence between them, they still find themselves thinking of one another, and of what could have been.

So when Ifemelu decides to pack her things and return to Nigeria, the prospect of rekindling an old flame frightens and excites them both. Can they rebuild a relationship that was destroyed by distance, new loves and months of silence? Will they ever be able to find their way back?

Americanah is a beautifully messy masterpiece. It essentially tells the tale of two lovers who drift apart, but at the same time it tackles many controversial issues, including political corruption, religion, racism, identity and black hair. Most of the story is told through the eyes of a sharp, witty and extremely observant Ifemelu, who learns that America is not what she expected. She is shocked by certain customs, taken aback by cultural taboos, but what astonishes her most is the issue of race. In fact, it intrigues her so much that she begins a race blog entitled 'Raceteenth' to share her thoughts and observations.

She realizes that, in America, controversial subjects are either carefully avoided or “swept under the rug.” But through her new blog, Ifemelu bravely lifts that piece of wool, exposing the accumulated build-up of America’s toxic and fractured society. What’s most amusing, however, is her humorous commentary. For example, she explains:

“…If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise, you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

Adichie fearlessly addresses these ridiculous unwritten rules that American and non-American blacks have to follow in order to avoid judgment or further controversy. Since race is an extremely uncomfortable topic for most, many Americans (particularly blacks) feel the need to tiptoe around the issue and accept what is, for the sake of staying safe. But in reality, this mandatory silence and compliance goes to show just how toxic America’s culture is.

The in-depth discussions that took place throughout the book were often overwhelming, but pleasantly so. Although it was hard to keep track of all the new characters, and although there was so much information jam-packed into each brief conversation, they were all eye-opening and thought-provoking. One interaction that stood out was the one between Ifemelu and Curt’s friends on the topic of interracial dating. After hearing a black woman point out that race was never an issue between her and her white boyfriend, Ifemelu disagreed, arguing that racial differences often made it difficult to truly understand or identify with your partner’s experiences and concerns.

Ifemelu’s character was bold, plain-spoken and honest, but these very qualities caused many to misjudge her. Her tendency to let her thoughts spill out unfiltered was often mistaken as an intentional insult or judgment. And when she openly disagreed with someone’s opinions or thoughts, her dissent was seen as either odd or disrespectful. The fascinating thing is that Ifemelu was largely unaware of the fact that she usually comes off as a superior and self-righteous woman, but despite how she was seen by other characters, I found her boldness very admirable. It showed that she was not so concerned about being accepted or liked by everyone.

Meanwhile, Obinze’s character was likeable but not as compelling—although his character was not as well-developed as Ifemelu’s. I appreciated reading his point of view, but I longed to know more about his time in Nigeria right after Ifemelu’s departure and I longed to know about his childhood too. It seemed unfair that majority of the story was told through Ifemelu’s eyes, and so I wished that the narratives were more equally divided. But aside from that, I admired Obinze’s quiet confidence, his intelligence and his honesty.

Roughly eighty percent of the characters in this book were not memorable at all. Most were introduced with short summaries of their backgrounds, perhaps with one or two amusing facts about their past, but one brief description and a few contributions to a discussion did not make them memorable for me.

However, the main characters who did stand out were Ifemelu’s mother, Obinze’s mother, Dike and Curt. Ifemelu’s mom was such an intriguing character. Her extreme religiosity ultimately became her coping mechanism, and it made me wonder about her own childhood, about her parents and the role religion played in her own upbringing. Obinze’s mother, on the other hand, was poised and so full of wisdom. I admired her relationship with her son, and while she was generous, she was the kind of mother who loved her child enough to be brutally honest. Young Dike, Ifemelu’s cousin, was simply a joy, although I felt for him because he never really understood who he was or where he belonged.

I wish Adichie spent more time exploring Dike’s struggle and figuring out what often lurked behind his light humor and laughter. And lastly, Curt, Ifemelu’s rich white boyfriend, was Prince Charming in the flesh. Like a cartoon cutout from a Disney film, Curt waltzed into Ifemelu’s life and became everything she would ever want. He had the dazzling looks, the status, the wealth and the charm. However, what made his character so memorable was his attempt to understand Ifemelu’s experiences and his willingness to defend her. In some moments, he came off as the “white person who gets it”, or rather, the white person who didn’t turn a blind eye to the injustices he saw right in front of him.

Americanah was beautifully written, and the way Adichie broke down immigration myths and racial stereotypes was a huge eye-opener. Her ability to handle so many serious issues in a direct, yet humorous way was very impressive and the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze was so moving. Adichie knows exactly how to warm the hearts of her readers, push their buttons, invoke strong reactions and get them thinking.

Americanah is a must-read for everyone. Regardless of genre or topic interest, this book will give every reader a better understanding of America. It will offer a well-rounded and honest critique of a powerful country that is broken and in desperate need of repair.

 

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