Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When I had finished Americanah, I tweeted that it was one of the best books I’d read in a while. After reading Adichie’s short story from the Season of Stories, I had been eager to read her longer fiction and, from researching her novels, Americanah was the one that jumped out at me. If you have been following this blog for a while, you might be aware that I work with international students, and it was clear from the blurb that a significant part of the narrative would be exploring one character’s life moving from Nigeria to study in the US; I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the bit that attracted me. Adichie’s writing drew me in from the outset and I was entirely caught up with the characters throughout the narrative.
Americanah begins with Ifemelu preparing to return to Nigerian after many years studying and working in the US; on an impulse, she contacts Obinze, who is working in Lagos, to let him know that she will be returning. From there the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time, revealing Ifemelu’s struggles as a Nigerian in the US; the breakdown of their relationship; and Obinze’s attempt to forge a life for himself in London. In fact, the majority of the narrative is set in the past, with only the final part fully set in the present day. Adichie handles the movement of time well, with moments of confusion few and far between. Her tone and style of writing at all times keep the reader engaged, even when the narrative is moving between the past and the present.
The characters are always the most important aspect of any narrative for me, and Americanah was no different: the novel was unendingly engaging and that was largely due to the characters. Ifemelu and Obinze never feel like forced characters: they are realistic, making good and bad decisions and growing in their beliefs over the course of the narrative. With both Americanah and ‘Cell One’ (a short story of Adichie’s), I finished the narrative feeling as though I knew these characters and their struggles as though they were real. Their struggles in cultures so different from their own were realistic, and reverse culture shock, seen through Ifemelu’s eyes, rang true to the experiences of many of the students I have worked with.
The one aspect of the story I struggled with was their present-day reconnection in Lagos. From the first chapter from Obinze’s point of view, the reader is aware that he has a wife and child now; yet it is also clear that the narrative is being set up for Obinze and Ifemelu to reunite romantically. I was really hoping that Adichie wouldn’t take the novel in this direction as the normalisation of adultery is really not something I’m looking for in a novel. One aspect of the infidelity narrative I was particularly uncomfortable with was the notion that Obinze and Ifemelu are both somehow superior to others in their lives simply due to their intelligence and that this justified their actions. Obinze’s disdain for his wife because of her preference of socialising to academia was off-putting from the start, so I was glad to see at least an acknowledgement of this from Ifemelu as her response to his comment about finally having someone intelligent to talk to reveals her discomfort: ‘she looked away, wondering if this was a reference to his wife, and disliking him for it’ (p.436).
Although I had issues with the ending, overall this was a novel I greatly enjoyed. I have much more to say about how it deals with issues of reverse culture shock, but I will save that for another time. For now, let me say that this was a thoroughly engaging novel that kept me engrossed for its entirety. I would definitely recommend Americanah and I may well re-read it at some point myself.