Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahbanner.jpg“There was cement in her soul.
It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

No one turns a phrase quite like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I fell in love with her writing when I read Half Of A Yellow Sun last year and this year I finally cracked open my long-owned copy of Americanah after the book was selected for the One Book, One New York campaign – a brilliant initiative, which I hope will spread to all cities, towns, continents – and joined in from half a world away.

Americanah centres on Ifemelu and Obinze, one-time lovers, who depart a Nigeria choked by the grip of military rule, and head to the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Obinze is soon deported from the UK as an illegal immigrant, but Ifemelu remains in the States, finding love and carving out a life for herself before returning home to Nigeria, jaded and homesick. I rather wished that Obinze’s story would have had a bit more substance, as the chapters focussing on his life post-Ifemelu is rather sparse. But this is a small annoyance as Adichie brings Ifemelu’s story so brilliantly to life.

We see Ifemelu first as a poor college student living hand-to-mouth in a country so alien to her own, rudely awakened to what it means to be Black for the first time. Later, when she becomes a successful blogger, she refers to this in a post, saying:

“We all wish 
race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

And while she grapples with what race and racism entails – the novel’s central themes – she explores the intricacies of love, sex, body image and hair politics. I loved Ifemelu for her boldness and strength. She is often flawed and intensely human in her decision making and provocative in her opinions which makes her a very relatable protagonist. The novel is also uniquely interspersed with Ifemelu’s blog posts and I found her observations very insightful – read this novel, if only for those posts!

Life in the States grows and changes her and when she is once again on African soil and reunited with Obinze, changed by his own experiences, their love holds new and unexpected challenges. Theirs is a happy ending, but almost at the expense of their moral fibre and I wondered if a less world-weary Ifemelu and Obinze would have made different decisions.

Much more than a love story, this novel is one that educates as it entertains, with its characters delivering piercing social commentary. Adichie is blunt in her delivery, her writing is superb and time and again challenges the reader to ponder themes of identity and belonging.

Highly recommended.

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The Returned by Jason Mott

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“People and events of wonder and magic are the lifeblood of the world.”

Just about 300 pages into this beautifully written but ultimately disappointing novel, a mere 140 pages from the end, I decided to cut my losses (three weeks of reading time) and move on to other things.

I ached to love this book. It’s been sitting on my TBR for years and the premise sounds fantastic: all over the world the dead are returning to the living world, just the same as when they died, but touched by a certain oddness the “true living” can sense a mile away. The story centres on Arcadia, a small town nestled in the American Southern Bible Belt and mainly on an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille whose 8-year-old son, Jacob, returns to their lives 50 years after drowning. There are plenty of other interesting characters included in the plot: a priest longing to make contact with his 15-year-old high school sweetheart, no longer dead; a family who was brutally murdered several years before and whose return causes tension within the community; a still grieving husband whose sorrow turns to dangerous envy when he is unable to find his wife among the Returned. With the town mystified, new laws dictating that the Returned may not leave their homes and subsequent offenders arrested and placed in a prison camp of sorts, I was gearing up for a thrilling experience.

But while the characters grappled with their loved ones coming back from the dead, I grappled with finding meaning in the story. I just couldn’t relate. The plot moves at a painful crawl and at the time of my decision to abandon the book completely, I had spent plenty of pages patiently waiting for something worthwhile to happen. I found myself longing to connect with the people of that small town – both living and Returned – but the characters felt hollow and ultimately I simply didn’t care for them enough to continue. A quick Google search (I had several unanswered questions) told me everything I needed to know about how events finally play out, and I am quite happy that I left off where I did.

Nevertheless, I will be keeping an eye out for Jason Mott in the future. Although this debut did not appeal to me, I found his writing to be striking. His career as a poet certainly shines through in how he turns a phrase.

Not quite recommended, but worth a peek.

I have since discovered a Netflix series by the same name and somewhat similar plot and am now getting ready to plop down on the sofa, overindulge in snacks, and watch the heck out of it. Seems the returned dead is not quite done with me just yet.