In brief: The story of Ifemelu and Obinze growing up in Lagos, Nigeria and how their lives take completely different paths away from each other.
The good: Great story, learned a lot.
The not-so-good: I felt the ending was a little muddled.
Why I chose it: Part of the Baileys Prize long list.
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins)
Setting: Nigeria, England and America
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an author who has been on try ‘must try’ list for some time, particularly after she won the Orange Prize for Fiction for Half of a Yellow Sun. When the release of the long list for the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction coincided with some bookish spare time and a copy of Americanah at the library, I knew the time to try her books had come. And my goodness, Americanah certainly blew me away. It’s a fantastically written book with memorable characters and incredible discussion of race and class across the world.
At 477 pages, Americanah is not a short book (and certainly not light if you’re reading a hardcover edition). The pages are filled to the brim with the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, who grew up together in Lagos, Nigeria and then went their separate ways as they grew older (despite all their friends being sure that they would get married and live happily ever after). The novel opens as Ifemelu is going to get her hair braided – she’s living in America, but has just split with her long term boyfriend and closed her highly successful blog looking at race and class in America to return to Nigeria. The book then goes back in time to Ifemelu and Obinze’s time in school and in university when Nigeria was in a constant state of flux. Ifemelu makes the decision after almost continuous strikes at the university to try to get a visa to study in America, while Obinze decides to finish his degree in Nigeria and come to America for postgraduate studies. Ifemelu is successful and moves to America, a place that is both wonderful and strange. After 9/11, Obinze cannot get a visa for America and ends up becoming an illegal immigrant. What happens when the former lovers meet again in Nigeria many years later?
It was interesting to read the reflections on both race and class by Ifemelu and Obinze. Growing up in Nigeria, the definition of race is much different to that in the Western world. Being a half-caste is something to celebrate and race is defined by whether someone is Igbo or not – but it’s more light-hearted, talking playfully about stereotypes. (Compare this with the woman who is braiding Ifemelu’s hair – her boyfriend’s mother will only let him marry an Igbo woman and she pleads with Ifemelu to tell him it’s okay not to marry an Igbo woman). Class is defined by the size of someone’s house/apartment and more importantly, the size of their generator – Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, who is having an affair with a Nigerian General, attains all this through sex. Class isn’t set in stone as it is in the UK, nor is it based on race as Ifemelu observes in America.
Once Ifemelu gets to America, she sees the place not as a paradise (as Obinze worships the country from afar) but as a place with different, hidden rules that are rarely mentioned. It is the observations she makes here that will later go on to be posts for her successful blog on race and class in America. (I noted that there’s no mention of what a blog is in the story – in 20 years’ time, will we be explaining to people what one is?) These range from being spoken at in VERY. LOUD. SHORT. SENTENCES. by people at the university when she enrols (because her colour and foreignness equals not being able to understand English) to others not understanding the nature of African hair and its kinkiness. When Ifemelu falls in love with a white man, there’s looks and comments made about their relationship and what it ‘is’. Later, other Africans accuse her of either not sounding Nigerian or not sounding American. Where does she fit into all of this?
Meanwhile, Obinze finds himself overstaying his visa in England. To survive, he takes on jobs under the names of other people using their details – and they take a cut. A university graduate, he cleans toilets for 3 pounds an hour and later works as delivery driver. Underneath it all is the fear of being discovered – even his friends at work don’t know who he really is. Out of desperation, he arranges a sham marriage to stay in the UK but ends up being deported. He’s tired, sick of trying to fight to be recognised in a world that refuses, so he returns to Nigeria. But things are changing, business is increasing and Obinze becomes a man of note in direct comparison to his alien status in the UK.
When Ifemelu returns, Nigeria has completely changed from the place she left – or has she changed? Things seem shabbier, work is poorly done and she can’t get some of the food she likes – tastes she developed in America (it’s interesting to note that Ifemelu can have her fill of her favourite Nigerian foods but not soy milk). Her job is unfulfilling, she still needs a generator and traffic jams are epic. Then she makes contact with Obinze again. The comparison between both their lives is amazing – one, disheartened with their country and the other energised by it. Obinze has a fancy car, multiple mobile phones and other status symbols. Ifemelu has her ideas and spirit. Will they make a life together again? The ending to me was a little bit separate – reinforcing Obinze’s high status and Ifemelu’s lost idealism for Nigeria with less interaction than I would have liked, but it was still sweet and not perfect. Which to me, reflects the novel in its whole – things are not perfect, but when do you accept things and stop fighting? Do you still look for the ideal or make a compromise? Is it about being recognised for who you are or things you can have? What trade-offs should you accept? (Aunty Uju is a great example of this – she accepts security and a father for her son in America, but it turns out it’s not that simple).
Americanah is a beautiful book that’s not afraid of taking the big issues and discussing them openly and honestly. It exposes the immigrant experience (both positive and negative) as well as examining class and race in the Western world. This should definitely be on your ‘must read’ list.