“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.