My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, to everyone who reads. To say that the plot follows high school sweethearts and their paths through life both separately and together would be to reduce the book to its least valuable parts. Instead it’s a powerful narrative about race, identity, class and gender.
The story moves through a series of interconnected reflections on different topics. Many of the most insightful and revealing stem from conversations about hair or take place in a hair salon. So many of the observations feel so deeply personal that, although the people may be fiction, the situations and revelations feel like this must surely echo Adichie’s own.
The white woman who “somehow believed that she was miraculously neutral in how she read books” represents a recurring observation, that well-meaning white people who are don’t see themselves as racist are just as racist as those who are deliberately malicious. This cutting observation is applied to the woman to refers to every black woman she sees as ‘stunning’ and the couple who rave about pottery as ‘beautiful’ “because it was made by poor people in a third world country”.
Race, and through it identity, is explored throughout the novel in more depth and from more perspectives than I have come across in fiction before. Just two of the many examples are Ifemelu’s experiences as an African woman, not an African-American woman in America, along with her nephew’s experience of being an African boy growing up in America – and grappling with the dissonance created by being physically identified in one way and culturally connected to two places. There are some brilliant passages which cut through the rhetoric:
“In America you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you.”
“Racism should never have happened, so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it”
“The only reason you say that race is not an issue for you 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 is not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America. When you are a black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you are alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside race matters.”
Adichie’s prose brings Nigeria to fictional ‘life’ in the most vivid manner. As with her portraits of London and various American cities the layers of class are complicated, playing into and resisting stereotypes at the same time. For this reason it’s such an important book. Complicating and challenging narrow ideas about identity is essential for building greater empathy and fostering understanding. I was strongly reminded of Adichie’s ‘Danger of a single story’ Ted Talk throughout, and it’s such an important perspective.
“[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness”
Americanah is a study of contrasts and contradictions. In particular Obinze both fascinated and repelled me. His first chapter sees him internally deriding his wife and feeling frustrated with her for assuming he will cheat on her, while simultaneously composing an email to Ifemelu, his high school sweetheart, and the woman he still holds a candle for. Overseas he struggles to find work but in Nigeria he finds wealth and success, the same person and yet different worth in the eyes of society. This kind of layered and nuanced writing is such a joy to read.
“although they exchanged pleasant sounds and were good friends… they did not really talk… he had never tried because he knew that the questions he asked of life were entirely different to hers”
The only part of this book that fell flat for me was the ending. The last 80 or so pages were focused on resolving the plot neatly, and only served to remind me how little the plot actually mattered to my enjoyment of the book. The explorations of ideas through both the eyes of the protagonists and through the various blog posts throughout was satisfying in itself and didn’t need a neat resolution.