“And yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months molded into a piercing homesickness.”
Obinze and Ifemelu fall in love in high school in Lagos, and begin university together. But as strikes and labour action make it difficult to obtain a post-secondary education in Nigeria, Ifemelu turns her sights abroad, and applies to an American university. Accepting a scholarship, she sets out for America alone, with plans for Obinze to follow soon. But shortly after arriving in America, Ifemelu abruptly cuts off contact without explanation. Unable to obtain a visa, Obinze cannot follow her. With America’s borders closed to him, Obinze finds himself in living London on an expired tourist visa, and working as an undocumented immigrant under other peoples’ names. But eventually they are both pulled back home to Nigeria, where their paths may cross again.
Americanah mimics the slow pace of day-to-day life, mixed with the ponderous quality of recollection. As Ifemelu has her hair braided in a Black hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, she reflects on her relationship with Obinze, and her life in America on the eve of her decision to return to Nigeria after nearly fifteen years abroad. Trying to avoid an awkward conversation with her hairdresser, she makes an impulsive decision to email Obinze and tell him she is returning home. For his part, Obinze also takes a turn carrying the narrative. Having become disaffected with his newly prosperous life in Lagos, he recalls his turbulent journey to England and back, and his unsatisfactory marriage to a woman who bores him.
Ifemelu and Obinze come from comfortable middle class families, and are drawn abroad by hope, choice, and opportunity, rather than driven by despair, poverty, or hunger. But their yearnings are no less powerful though their roots are more prosaic. Arriving in America, Ifemelu becomes aware of herself as a Black woman for the first time, and finds that her identity as a Black African woman often differs sharply from the experiences of African Americans. She begins chronicling her observations on a blog that becomes unexpectedly popular. Meanwhile, Obinze finds his identity nearly erased by his need to live almost invisibly in London. While Obinze’s self-respect is degraded by his deceptions, Ifemelu is slowly worn down by pervasive American beauty standards, particularly as they pertain to Black hair, and the effort it takes to maintain her blog.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s characters are vibrant and opinionated, sometimes almost mercilessly so, as each social situation is painstakingly dissected under the cutting eye of the narrator. Ifemelu’s first interracial relationship, and her first relationship with an African-American man both provide ample opportunity for analysis and observation as she tries to integrate into their worlds. Ifemelu mines every encounter, seeking material for her blog, but the constant effort leaves her feeling as if she has “cement in her soul.” The more she writes, the more she questions herself, until she has developed a bad case of imposter syndrome.
Americanah is a sweeping cultural critique mixed with a star-crossed love story. Ifemelu’s return home promises to reunite her with Obinze, but it also provides the opportunity for Ifemelu to see Nigeria with fresh eyes, as a returnee who discovers how Lagos has changed, and how America has changed her. Where she first observed from her position as a Black African in America, she now turns her eye on Nigeria as an Americanah, seeing both its strengths and its weaknesses in a new light. Ifemelu seems unable to escape her calling as a cultural critic even as she struggles to apply her insight to her own life.
Americanah is an ambitious novel that contains many sharply observed issues which sometimes threaten to overwhelm the characters. But the fearlessness and poise with which Adichie tackles these hefty issues carries the novel through.
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