Americanah was judged as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times. It tells the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, ambitious young Nigerians setting out to make a life for themselves.
The novel begins as Ifemelu prepares to return to Africa from the USA, where she has studied and been earning a living as a teacher and blogger. The opening is set in a hairdressing shop as Ifemelu reflects on her past, and on the differences between herself and the other African or African American clients and workers. Throughout the novel her hair is a symbol of Ifemelu’s ethnicity, and the hairdressing salon one forum for examining and considering the cultural and ethnic differences she has encountered whilst in the USA.
Ifemelu’s story begins in a Nigeria that was not able to offer political and economic security, so her generation look to emigration as a key to personal development and fulfilment. Her early life offers an interesting insight into Nigerian culture – its aspirational nature, the importance of education, the political corruption. Her aunt becomes involved with a powerful general, bears his child and the consequences of that relationship reverberate throughout the novel. Ifemelu herself falls in love with Obinze and is taken under the wing of his mother – a cultured, intelligent and benign influence. In the end Ifemelu is able to achieve her dream of emigrating to America. She leaves Obinze behind and starts a new life.
Americanah is essentially a love story. Obinze spends time as an illegal immigrant in the UK before returning to Nigeria to start a family. Ifemelu has a series of relationships in the USA, and decides to return too. The final sections of the novel deal with their attempt at reconciliation. I won’t give away the ending.
What made Americanah so unique in my experience was the direct way that Adiche deals with racism and immigration. She gives a sympathetic and detailed account of Obinze’s attempts to arrange a marriage that will allow him to stay in England. In the American section she considers the differences between Ifemelu’s situation and the situation of the African Americans who have always lived with racism. As an African she is new to so much of the language and psychology of racism – Ifemelu writes a series of blogs about this and these tend to be used as conclusions to the sections telling her story – with titles like Understanding America for the Non-American Black: What Hispanic Means and Obama Can Win Only If He Remains the Magic Negro.
As an outsider Ifemelu – and Adichie herself I suppose – casts an objective and critical eye over American society – and this really is a much more significant part of the novel than the English section. The account gives rise to quite a lot of thoughtful criticism, some parts quite satirical, other sections less so. Ifemelu is able to be very honest and direct because she is African and sees things afresh, and because her ethnicity allows her some freedoms not available to all commentators. Consequently this book is a breath of fresh air and one that can be enjoyed on different levels – both as an endearing love story, and as social commentary.