Late in AMERICANAH, the new novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the secondary characters says of America, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” Adichie’s book is an attempt at just that: an entertaining analysis of race relations in the United States, as perceived by a young Igbo woman whose native Nigeria had military dictatorships to contend with but no concept of racial conflict, as least not to America’s extent.
Ifemelu came to the United States to pursue her studies. She has a humanities fellowship at Princeton, even though she does not have a graduate degree. She received the fellowship in part based on the popularity of her blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” This blog contains snarky but astute observations about American life and features titles such as “Not All Dreadlocked American White Guys Are Down” and “Traveling While Black.”
"In its mix of domestic drama and detailed analyses of world politics, the book is a hybrid of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and the more overtly political works of Nadine Gordimer."
Ifemelu likes Princeton for its “delicately overpriced shops” and for the fact that, unlike most American cities, it has no smell. But she doesn’t like having to travel all the way to Trenton to get her hair braided. She goes to a hair salon at the outset of the novel in anticipation of her return to Nigeria; after 13 years in America, she has decided to go back to her homeland. Family still live there, as does a man named Obinze, the boyfriend she left behind.
While she waits for the women at the braiding salon to work on her hair, Ifemelu sends email to Obinze to inform him of her plan to return. They had been a couple for many years in Nigeria, but shortly after her arrival in the US, she started to ignore his emails and texts. This was due in part to frustration over her financial instability and shame over a one-time sexual liaison with a tennis coach to earn badly needed funds.
Obinze, now a property magnate, is riding in the back of a car when he receives Ifemelu’s news about returning to Nigeria. His driver is taking him to the gated mansion in which Obinze lives with his pampered wife, Kosi, and their baby daughter, Buchi. Obinze has become so rich that he can afford to pay school fees for a hundred children in his village. “I do what rich people are supposed to do,” he tells Ifemelu during their eventual reunion. But he is not happy with his life as a rich man. Years earlier, he was an undocumented immigrant working under an assumed identity in England. Now he is wealthy beyond his dreams, but unfulfilled. He had made himself forget about Ifemelu, but when he receives her unexpected text, he allows himself to hope that they might be able to rekindle their love.
AMERICANAH spans a decade and a half and introduces us to dozens of characters, many of them Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s parents, aunts and cousins, in America and Nigeria. The structure of the novel is episodic. Adichie chronicles Ifemelu’s several romances, her jobs, her family conflicts, and the long discussions she has with lovers and university professors about race in America and the rise of Obama. In its mix of domestic drama and detailed analyses of world politics, the book is a hybrid of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy and the more overtly political works of Nadine Gordimer.
Your appreciation of this dense and ambitious novel will depend on your feelings toward domestic dramas that have large casts and are heavy on romance. One person’s sprawling saga is another person’s soap opera. But there’s much to like here, especially Ifemelu’s observations about life in America and the blog posts that appear throughout the second half of the novel, posts about Obama needing to become “the Magic Negro” again after Reverend Wright if he wants to win, or how an “American Non-Black” can still be racist even if he or she says “I have a best friend who is black.” Ifemelu’s posts are a powerful reminder that, for all of our advances, racism has yet to be eradicated in America.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on May 24, 2013