Book Report: Chimamanda Ngozi Adachie's Americanah (2013)

Americanah is a book that is written so well that after the first few pages I already wanted to never try to write anything again because I knew I’d never be as good. I felt similarly with Adichie’s other books (Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun), but while I loved those books too, Americanah somehow surpasses them in its scope, talent, characterization and sheer emotional impact. I literally cried at the end of this book and while I’m certainly no “tough guy”, not many books manage that. It both deals with race politics in different countries, but at the same time a difficult but authentic love story. Ifemelu and Obinze seem to be meant for each other and still get torn apart and until the ambiguous ending, Adichie never falls for easy answers and romance clichés. Every decision they make seems tough, their flaws feel real and their relationship is not governed by the plot, but only by them as characters. The politics are really thought-provoking, though, and not just window-dressing. Both romance and politics play an equal role and mastering that challenge is impressive all by itself. Adichie has so much to say about race, class, our image of Africa, relationships, regret and pain that I’d say everyone can find something in this book to like. Yes, the book is by a Nigerian author, partly set in Nigeria, but it’s not a “Nigerian” book. In the spirit of truly great novels it’s about everything and everyone.

Ifemelu and Obinze, the two main characters (although we follow Ifemelu more), fall in love in college and are pulled apart by life. One aspect of the book that spoke so true to me, was the question of which decisions you make as you become an adult, how you deal with regret, how willing you are to change your decisions. Ifemelu gets an opportunity to go to the U.S. and we meet her years later, when she decides to move back to Nigeria, distanced from Obinze for reasons we only learn much later. The structure of the novel resembles the messy inner lives of the characters. Past, present and future are all uncertain and so we jump back and forth between past and present and the two characters. Much of the suspense of the novel, from very early on, hinges on whether the two of them will be together again in the end. I know, this sounds like the most stereotypical romance novel you can imagine, but the way Adichie avoids the pitfalls of that trope by making that conflict real instead of artificial, makes an even stronger emotional impact. It helps that despite mistakes both characters do (not communicating, being with people that aren’t right, ignoring their feelings), their actions are always understandable, making it impossible to apply guilt to any one of them. As much as you want them to be together, because Adichie makes a convincing case of their connection, you can never be sure, just as in life, how it will eventually turn out. Maybe the last few moments make it seem a little too easy, but it still remains a genuine love story.

Ifemelu’s experiences in the U.S. and Obinze’s experiences in the England gives us a perspective on race we normally don’t have. On the one hand, Adichie manages to get an idea across we’re completely unfamiliar with, that it’s possible that race does not matter. Growing up in Nigeria, Ifemelu is stunned by the importance of race in the U.S. and then shocked by the racism. For us, racism is such a natural thing, so commonplace, but in order to understand her we just have to think of how unaware we are that we are white. Ifemelu’s view on America’s racism, the hypocrisy and hierarchy even among black people is truly unique, I think. I read a lot about race in my English studies, but I feel like Adichie offered me a completely new perspective that seems both more grounded and radical than anything else. Ifemelu is a blog writer (no, I don’t identify with her because her blog actually becomes famous) and her blog posts are well-written, witty essays on the state of race in the Western world.

Ever since I read Chris Cleave’s excellent novel The Other Hand (mostly known as Little Bee), I’m on a quest to teach myself about Africa to overcome the terrible stereotypes we have about this continent. Americanah offers some brilliant material for that quest. ‘Why do you say Africa instead of just saying the country you mean’? Ifemelu asked in the way that I have been saying for years now to people, making me love the book even more very early. I really enjoy the casualness with which the characters are aware of the prejudices people have about Africa and how they move between anger and amusement. ‘They’ll believe all kinds of shit about Africa’ one character says at one point with knowing humor.

But nothing I say here without spoiling too much can be better than: read this book. It’s a brilliantly written, sad, funny, intelligent, emotional and really unique novel. And if you like this one, read her other books, because they’re all really, very, extremely good. I don’t often envy people for their talents but Chimananda Ngozi Adichi is the writer I wish I was and will never be.