Sunday, April 19, 2015

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A young Nigerian woman emigrates to the United States, then, after several years, returns home

Ifemelu, a good student, almost on a whim applies for a US visa and gets it, moving in with her vivacious Aunty Uju who scrambles to make a decent living. At first, life in the United States nearly overwhelms Ifemelu, then she thrives and starts penning a tart-tongued blog. Meanwhile, back in Nigeria, Ifemelu’s school days boyfriend, Obinze, who has always longed for a life in the States, is unable to get a US visa and smuggles himself to London where he takes menial jobs, leaving in fear and observing how his fellow countryman change for the worse after their arrival in the West. Obinze is deported, returning to Nigeria a failure. However, because of lucky contacts in the booming country, he becomes a wealthy man, with a submissive exquisitely beautiful wife. He and Ifemelu don’t keep in contact, but after her return to Lagos she watches with bemusement the newly prosperous society and reunites with Obinze.

At almost 600 pages, this novel made no bones about its ambition, attempting to say something about Nigerian society, American racism, romantic love and hairstyle choice. Where the novel really worked was illustrating both Ifemelu and Obinze’s despair at having to take humiliating jobs in order to eat, as well as their intelligent analyses at how the people around them behave when confronted with poverty and racial differences. What was particularly successful was the depiction of
Ifemelu's growing consciousness of the concept of “race.” She arrives in the US as an immigrant wondering why all the black Americans are obsessed by race and then begins getting obsessed by race herself because white people are unable to refrain from making every single social interaction about race.

This was a good book, consistently absorbing, though only in the last few pages did it fully commit to be a love story, and that love story’s fraught conclusion was squished into the end. I’m not sure I even fully bought the idea of crotchety Ifemelu paired with serene Obinze. But just as the conflict about his wife and child starts to come to a head, he ups and leaves his wife. It made me think a little worse of him.

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