The literary novelist who chooses to put a love story between a boy and a girl at the heart of his or her novel risks accusations of succumbing to the lightweight, so for any import from other genres to escape this a story will have to work up several rungs of the reconstructive ladder. Adichie’s protagonist, Ifemelu, leaves her childhood sweetheart, Obinze, in Nigeria for studies in America. They keep in touch for a while but distance cruelly chips away at their bond as they grow older, form new relationships and develop different preoccupations. While Ifemelu pursues her first degree, a fellowship at Princeton and authors a successful blog chiefly about race, Obinze graduates university and travels to London to seek better fortunes.
Excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog feature in the novel and contain very pointed observations about race. They are spread sparingly in the text and it is a testament to Adichie’s brilliance as a storyteller that when they do show up, the reader is unplugged, often from an engrossing part of the narrative, rarely dissatisfied for these excerpts are frank, unflinching and very funny. Part One of the book neatly sums up the major concerns of the novel and finds Ifemelu going to a hair salon to get her hair braided in preparation for her trip to Nigeria where she has recently decided to resettle. She has given up her apartment, has effectively broken up with her African American boyfriend and is warily looking forward to reuniting with Obinze in Lagos, who is now a prosperous real estate owner, in a loveless marriage and has a daughter. The next 50 or so pages fills the reader in on Ifemelu’s and to an extent Obinze’s beginnings in Nigeria before returning to the present with Ifemelu still getting her hair braided. Majority of the novel’s structure proceeds in a similar fashion.While in London Obinze is reduced to the menial jobs afforded the illegal immigrant and his attempts to marry an Angolan to gain papers are thwarted when he’s arrested and deported. Adichie’s compulsive filialness to her main characters is not restricted to Ifemelu for Obinze’s suffering is tempered by his dignified upbringing. Emenike, a classmate from Nigeria who he never much cared for, now becomes his benefactor but never gains Obinze’s respect. He’s invited to dinner where he meets Emenike’s white-British wife and their liberal middle-class guests. Adichie’s great eye for nuance, on show all through the book, cleverly depicts how Emenike, who has embraced Britishness a
little too wholeheartedly, tells Obinze about his rage when a black cab driver drove past him to pick up the white women ahead of him. When he retells the story to his dinner guests, it’s a new version shorn of said rage and one of something approaching pity for the cabbie’s ignorance. Showing anger, justified at it may be, might invite empathy from his white guests but is likely to poison future conversations which for a man like him hell-bent on inclusion are unwelcomed. Adichie’s decision to write about Obinze’s time in London broadens the geography, if not the thematic scope, of the novel allowing for a discourse on illegal immigration, sham marriages and attitudes on race in a different but not too dissimilar context. But it also shows up the author’s poor knowledge of the city. Generic names for places are passed off as details “it was a tube station” “in a pub” “at a shopping centre” “of a London building” “dimly lit restaurant”. When specifics do show up, “train station in Barking”, it is but a drizzle on a featureless arid expanse. Nevertheless, Obinze’s decision to flee Nigeria, not out of strife, but “choicelessness” is a damning indictment of the country for what future is there for it when even its well-bred and educated youth are stagnated? This, however, is almost scuppered by her strange decision not to prod the cloak of dishonesty under which Obinze acquires his wealth. But a later addition to the cast, Mekkus, is said to have returned from America “very wealthy from what many said was a massive credit card fraud” and he doesn’t deny the rumours “as though to take the sting from the whispers that trailled him”. It’s as though Adichie just needed Obinze to be a rich, middle-class and melancholic man, by means unimportant, for lives and social circles such as his are richer seams for a narrative than, say, a poor or reprobate Obinze. Adichie’s brimming narrative gifts are sometimes let down by her propensity for overemphasis, so that deftly handled scenes and characterisations are then summed up, sometimes with a whole paragraph. This is also true on a sentence level for instance “she was severely crossed eyed, pupils darting in opposite directions” “a gathering frisson, a secret sense of excitement” “she had been tensed through and through, unable to relax”. In each of these sentences is an
Adichie’s brimming narrative gifts are sometimes let down by her propensity for overemphasis, so that deftly handled scenes and characterisations are then summed up, sometimes with a whole paragraph. This is also true on a sentence level for instance “she was severely crossed eyed, pupils darting in opposite directions” “a gathering frisson, a secret sense of excitement” “she had been tensed through and through, unable to relax”. In each of these sentences is an overexplanation, the second half employed to reinforce the first. Perhaps a present need not only be gift wrapped, but the content also labelled on the box in glitter. Adichie has never shied from voicing Achebe’s influence on her writing and there is more than a whiff of the great man’s satirical flair from that most prescient of novels, A Man of the People, in Americanah, especially in the party set-pieces, with every single one (there are no less than five) exceptionally well-drawn. Here, as in the blog excerpts, the author’s observations are tartiest. If they tilt towards caricature it is an understandable limitation, what with being walk on parts where particular character traits are showcased. This imposed restriction positions Ifemelu and Obinze – and doubtless the author – as magistrates at a tribunal hearing and the arraigned characters in the docks, their foibles and misguided well intentions laid bare. The caustic barbs at white liberals will cause a stir. Some will find it hard to believe they’ve been written about with such irreverence by a Nigerian woman who has been a beneficiary of their largesse (the handsome $500 000 Genius Grant for one). But there is little in the book that is false, whether it be about race in America or class in Nigeria. They’re suppressed everyday truths about which Adichie’s has written with such gusto. But to claim, as her publishers have done in the cover flap, that Americanah is her “most powerful and astonishing novel yet” is to actively delist that monument that is Half of a Yellow Sun, an indisputable testimony of writerly maturity, intelligence coupled with the heftiness of the Nigerian/Biafra war. She brings all these qualities to bear in Americanah, where though the stakes are lower, the results are no less admirable.
A version of this review previously appeared in African Business Review