My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Why did people ask "What is it about?" as if a novel had to be about only one thing.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Americanah
Americanah does in fact seem to be about several things. On one level, it is simply a love story, but, more significantly, it is about the immigrant experience.
It is also about the black experience - the experience of American-Africans as opposed to that of African-Americans or of Africans. More deeply still, it delineates the complexities of national identities and ways of thinking. Much of this is accomplished through an exploration of the everyday issue of hair care.
Kinky African hair is fragile, the author tells us, and it requires special handling. Products made for white people's hair simply won't do the trick. Much of Americanah is taken up with detailing the Nigerian-born heroine, Ifemelu's, quest for hair care. We see her spending long hours getting her hair braided, and even when she decides to let her hair go natural and sport an "Afro," that style, too, takes a lot of care and is the focus of her grooming regime.
Ifemelu began life in a Nigeria which existed under military dictatorship. She attended a Lagos secondary school where she fell in love with Obinze. He would be the great love of her life.
It was the dream of Ifemelu and Obinze to get out of Nigeria. It was a common dream as people were emigrating from the country whenever possible. Eventually, with the help of family, Ifemelu was able to go to America to study.
Her early experiences in America were harrowing. She had little money, only what her family could send, and since she was on a student visa, she was unable to work, legally.
A friend found a way for her to use someone else's Social Security number to look for a job. That, too, turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Desperate for work, she suffered a humiliating experience which continued to haunt her years later.
Finally, her friend helped her connect with a white liberal couple who hired her as a babysitter for their two children. As well as being her employer, they become her friends and the remainder of Ifemelu's experience in America seems to be smooth sailing. Except for that hair thing.
Finishing her undergraduate career, Ifemelu decides to start a blog about her observations on race. She calls it "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Know as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." In her blog, she takes on many of what some would consider taboo subjects. She writes, for example, about the relationship of styles of hair to employability. (There's that hair again!) She writes about what she regards as the misguided reverence that some African-Americans hold for Africa. She writes of her relationships with white and black lovers and her observations about how she is regarded by those men's friends.
Meantime, Obinze is having his own immigrant experience in Britain. He overstays his visa and he, too, tries working on another person's national service number. Then, in order to legitimize his presence in the country, he plans a sham marriage to a British citizen, but he is found out and deported back to Nigeria where he begins to prosper. Years later, he is a wealthy businessman with a beautiful wife and daughter when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria.
This book seems to me not so much plot-driven or even character-driven as observation-driven. The plot that exists is a structure for presenting Ifemelu's (i.e., Adichie's) opinions and social criticisms. These often appear in the guise of her blog entries. Such as this one:
Understanding America for the Non-American Black: American Tribalism
In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds - class, ideology, region, and race. First, class. Pretty easy. Rich folk and poor folk.
Second, ideology. Liberals and conservatives. They don't merely disagree on political issues, each side believes the other is evil. Intermarriage is discouraged and on the rare occasion that it happens, is considered remarkable. Third, region. The North and the South. The two sides fought a civil war and tough stains from that war remain. The North looks down on the South while the South resents the North. Finally, race. There's a ladder of racial hierarchy in America. White is always on top, specifically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, otherwise known as WASP, and American Black is always on the bottom, and what's in the middle depends on time and place.
That seems a very cogent summation of American society to me. And there are many such observations sprinkled throughout the book. They were among my favorite parts of the book.
As a blogger myself, I was amused by Ifemelu's statement at one point that she never knew what her readers wanted or what they would like - what would generate a lot of clicks. She wrote posts which she was sure would be popular and would get a lot of response and there was nothing but silence. On the other hand, she might dash off a quick entry with no expectation of it striking a chord with readers and she would be overwhelmed by clicks and comments. I suppose this uncertainty is the bain of all bloggers. Maybe all writers.
I enjoyed this book tremendously, although there were some things that bothered me. The character of Ifemelu, for example. She just seemed to glide effortlessly through life. Even the big emotional upsets of her life didn't really seem to upset her very much. For someone who was described as very passionate, she seemed substantially lacking in passion.
In fact, all of the characters in the book seemed curiously flat and one-dimensional to me. I couldn't really care a lot about the fate of any of them. It appeared that Adichie couldn't either. They were simply vehicles for moving forward the story she wanted to tell.
Moreover, I found the ending somewhat disappointing. It just didn't seem to me that this would have been the logical conclusion for these characters. But then, I am a white American woman of a certain age who has never lived outside of this country. What do I know about how these cosmopolitan world travelers would feel and behave?
Throughout the last half of this book, which was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2013, I debated with myself about what rating I would give it - four stars or five stars. In the end, I decided that my quibbles were not sufficient to give it the lower rating. It was an amazing read, so I gave it five stars. But with the silent understanding that it really should have been four-and-a-half.
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