Published two years ago, Americanah is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel. It follows the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love in Nigeria as teenagers. However, life pulls them apart; Ifemelu moves from Nigeria to the US, Obinze to the UK. The book follows their experiences abroad, as both struggle being black immigrants in countries with complex attitudes towards race.
On the one hand, I really admire this book. I think the themes are incredibly important, and Adichie explores them deftly and interestingly. It is certainly a thought-provoking, deep book – and nor did I find it overly moralistic. It’s more a novel to make you think, to answer questions you didn’t even realise you had. One of my favourite aspects of this book were the contrasts drawn between different kinds of racial experiences. For example, the difference between being Nigerian and moving to the US, or being African American and having grown up there; or the differences Obinze and Ifemelu encounter between the UK and the US. The cultural differences between Nigeria, the US and the UK are likewise all fascinatingly explored.
There are some aspects of the plot that I also found very interesting. Ifemelu’s experiences when she first arrives in America are heart-wrenching, but feel very real, and for the first time we get a strong sense of the kind of person she is, what can and cannot break her. The device of her blog about race is a clever and very interesting one, which I felt really worked. Likewise, Obinze’s life in London as an illegal immigrant opens your eyes to a lot of things you might not have thought about otherwise. In fact, I would have loved to know more about Obinze’s life. At first the book seems ready to be a dual narrative, but Ifemelu’s story definitely takes precedent in the end. We only see snatches of Obinze’s experiences in the UK, and I personally would have liked a more equal split. I think I would have felt more engagement with Obinze’s character if we’d found out more about the rest of his life, and while we do see a little contrast between experiences in the UK and America, I think perhaps more would have been beneficial.
For me Americanah is one of those books that I found more interesting than enjoyable. It at times felt quite slow to me, and it took me a while to become properly engaged with the book – and even when I was engaged, it was the themes I was reading it for, not the characters.
Ifemelu and Obinze, individually, are interesting characters, but I feel like a lot of the other characters aren’t particularly developed. Even Blaine and Curt feel only half-done, and there are a lot of minor characters whose purpose seems only to say inappropriate things at dinner parties. I know that this a book about themes more than about characters, but I still think that Adichie could have strengthened her arguments by strengthening some of the minor characterisation. For example, take Kimberly’s sister Laura. She says some atrocious things, but because she is only ever really an atrocious person, we almost dismiss some of the things she says just as her being an ignorant and not very nice person, rather than seeing broader issues in American culture as a whole. Kimberly herself is slightly more complex, but I feel like Adichie slips into stock figures a little too often. And when her characters are visibly there just to make her point, they make that point far less well.
Moreover, I didn’t feel entirely convinced by the relationship between the central characters. I wasn’t gripped enough by the story of their relationship and love to be fully engaged with the plot. I think part of the problem for me was this: Ifemelu goes to America while they are still together. They have a vague plan that he will follow, but this is mentioned in just one line; I simply didn’t believe that these characters who are so in love and reliant on one another that they changed university choices just to be in the same place, would so happily separate. I feel like more was needed to explain this, even just a scene of them planning their future. The actual breakdown of their relationship when she gets to America is very believable, and written very well – but I wasn’t convinced by their relationship prior to that. Throughout the book I was invested in the themes, but the relationship at the heart of it is not that engaging, which kept me removed.
This is quite a mixed review, I know. I admire the book for its themes and what it’s trying to do, but I found the characters and plot at times lacking. If you want a gripping, engaging book, this might not be it – but Adichie does explore important themes in a very interesting way, and it certainly provides some food for thought.
Greatest strength: The way Adichie explores the themes of race and culture.
Greatest weakness: The characters, I think – or at least the relationship between them.
Let’s finish on a quote: ‘The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it.’
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