Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is what one of its characters claims is impossible- an honest novel about race in America. It tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerian teenagers that fall hard in love during their school years, becoming inseparable. They start university together, but due to the constant government strikes Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to finish her degree and begin her postgraduate studies in the United States, a destination that has always seemed almost mythically exotic to Obinze. They plan for Obinze to join her later, but a post 9/11 America is not a willing to give any young Nigerian men the benefit of the doubt. After failing to hear from Ifemelu for months and months, Obinze moves to England. Finding work in an Essex warehouse using a false identity, he resorts to an arranged sham marriage to obtain a visa and a NI number. 

Though the two characters spend the vast majority of the narrative apart, their connection is unmistakable. They are flawed, self destructive and misguided, but they are powerfully and permanently linked. We follow the paths of their separate lives, led on different continents. Both paths are blighted with poverty, depression and desperation that each of them endure and overcome alone, before they are reunited once more in Lagos many years later.

I was really drawn into the worlds and the characters of this novel, not just the star crossed lovers but the vibrant cast of supporting characters- the boisterous African-American cousin Dike, the enigmatic General, the hunky intellectual professor ex boyfriend and the inquisitive but depressing Africans that staff the American braiding salon. The care and craft that went into depicting the supporting characters and grim detail of the surroundings did a really effective job of setting the stages in Nigeria, England and America. The reader really understands that there are all kinds of lives and times tied up in the events of Americanah and that though the experiences of its characters are intensely personal, the types of discrimination, the various struggles and difficulties experienced by each of the characters feels universal.

One of the concepts that I found most intriguing about this book was the cultural and social differences between being an African and an African American. Ifemelu points out that whilst a Nigerian might have been running for political office in Nigeria, an African American during the same period would have been sitting at the back of the bus and drinking from specially designated water fountain. The theme of personal and cultural identity runs thickly through this book, and it manifests itself in many ways, including (surprisingly) through the multiple hair styling options available to black women and what each decision potentially says about its wearer.

I loved the blogging element of this novel- I devoured all of Ifemelu's posts, feeling outrage and disgust on her behalf and ignorance and shame on my own. Every reader must wonder if they've ever had a conversation with another that's inwardly provoked a similar internal reaction. What if you've said something annoying or obvious in trying to seem sensitive or interested? The posts were interesting and intricate and really gave the reader the opportunity to get into the head of the protagonist. Her explorations of contemporary race and identity politics were fascinating, heartbreaking and so honestly written. It would be easy for the author to take the opportunity to be heavy handed, judgmental or preachy, but they felt so genuine and valuable and depressingly every day. While social commentary and racial politics play an important role in the book, it's the credible characters and the perceptive, confident story-telling that takes centre stage.

I was absolutely bowled over by the prose in this book- it's simply a beautifully told narrative. A fairy ordinary but very personal story of loss, separation and new starts, narrated in a way that is beautiful, assertive and evocative. A fascinating insight into the minds and lives of others, filled with vibrant and memorable characters and unique voices full of identity. I honestly thought the Goldfinch had the Bailey's Prize in the bag, but now all bets are off.

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