I haven’t read any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other novels, but having read Americanah I certainly intend to. Americanah is a beautifully brave novel, whose rawness matters more than my frustration with the occasionally overstretched shape of the overarching narrative, the love story of Ifemelu and Obinze. I say the novel is brave because it tackles questions of race, economic migration and poverty openly; anger is rightfully owned, prejudice is expected from all angles, but with a welcome lack of sentimentality: this is not a novel to encourage priviledged weeping and ensuing charity. Whilst this can occasionally give the novel a polemical feel, it is a polemic that should be at the centre of the international world growing around us.
Ifemelu is the outspoken, honest heart of the novel, and we follow her journey from Nigeria to America and back. We enter her story as she is on the brink of return to Nigeria, and through a series of regressions in time we experience love, university strikes in Nigeria, becoming black in America, learning to live in America, and then returning home to a changed Nigeria. Her high school and university boyfriend, Obinze, allows for a glimpse of a similar journey to England and back. Ifemelu’s views are refreshing because they allow for contradiction. You can love and hate a place at the same time. You can be nostalgic about home but still want it to change.
What the novel expresses so clearly is the idea of choice as the greatest of riches. It is something most white middle-class Western European, North American people do not think about. Choice is taken for granted. When Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria, her friend turns off the generator at night, and ‘soon Ifemelu was tossing in the wetness of her own sweat. A painful throbbing had started behind her eyes and a mosquito was buzzing nearby and she felt suddenly, guiltily grateful that she had a blue American passport in her bag. It shielded her from choicelessness. She could always leave; she did not have to stay’ (end of Chapter 44).
Americanah should be on the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction short list this year. I hope, unlike We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulowayo, which was shortlisted for the Booker and which explored similar themes, though in a very different way, it actually wins. Though the messages do sometimes overcome the writing, they are an integral part of Ifemelu’s journey and it is a journey we should all be more familiar with.
Next week I’m reading Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister followed by Beauty by Sarah Pinborough. I’m nearly half way through the year of reading a book a week. Look out for my ‘favourites so far’ post coming soon.