Obinze and Ifemelu meet at high school in Nigeria and fall in love. When the unstable political regime causes disruption to their university lives, they separate to travel overseas and complete their studies. Ifemelu travels to America where she eventually comes to write an extremely popular lifestyle blog, while Obinze ends up in England, later returning to Nigeria to begin a successful career in real estate. The novel opens after a period of some years has passed, with Ifemelu deciding to return to Nigeria. She has a serious boyfriend, and Obinze a family, but they remain drawn to each other in spite of the distance between them and the time that has passed since their last meeting.
The greatest success of this novel is the character of Ifemelu. Instantly likeable and engaging, Ifemelu is a well-rounded character with a distinct voice. The blog is an excellent device for providing Ifemelu with an outlet for the strange racial politics she encounters in America, and placing her in the role of detached observer and commentator gives the reader absolute confidence in her assessments.
This is not to say that Ifemelu is aloof from the narrative in any sense. Her personal struggles and the way she acts in and reacts to challenging situations are fully sympathetic and human. Ifemelu is a complex character who experiences anger, depression, love, confusion and empathy with others across her storyline. One of the most quietly striking aspects of the novel for me was a small episode in which Ifemelu experiences a period of depression. She doesn’t leave her room, eats at night so as not to bump into her housemates, discards communications from Obinze, and finds her movements heavy and sluggish. In spite of being told by a friend that she is depressed and should see a doctor, Ifemelu struggles to accept being medicalised in this way. Depression is an “American illness” a label that as a Nigerian she cannot accept. Episodes like this throughout the novel provide little windows through which Ifemelu’s experience can be felt.
Another strength of Americanah is in its astute observations of the cultures in which Obinze and Ifemelu find themselves. Speaking as an English person, I can better attest to the veracity of Obinze’s narrative in England than Ifemelu’s in America, and as far as that goes the incidents portrayed are absolutely like a mirror held to English society in the 1990s.
Adichie captures the fears surrounding immigration that were (and are still) a huge part of the political and journalistic landscape of this country, and which play out in racist attitudes both overt and insidious. She also presents us with an ugly portrait of the male working classes guffawing over The Sun‘s page 3 girls and bragging about sexual exploits, a picture softened by the admission of one worker that he had been lying about his conquests. This character, Nigel, is also the only one to split his tip fairly with Obinze when they work together.
In spite of the time spent in America particularly and England also, Nigeria is very much at the heart of this novel. It is a Nigeria of the middle and upper classes; professors and business people who fan themselves dramatically at the prospect of their children being educated in a Nigerian school instead of the English or French speaking schools. It is a Nigeria where to have a white man as company director is to make yourself a success, and where class is a factor of great importance. This world comes under the same slightly mocking gaze that fuels the rest of the book, exposing the foibles of the various characters as well as the darker elements of human nature and society.
While Obinze’s experiences in England were more easily recognisable to me, I enjoyed Ifemelu’s commentary on America far more. Whether this was simply a preference for Ifemelu’s narrative (which is sparkling), or the enjoyment of a curious peep over the fence I can’t fully say, but it was Ifemelu’s story that really gripped me. Her description of coming to America and finding herself no longer Nigerian, but simply ‘black’ (a state of affairs that was echoed to a lesser degree in Obinze’s experience) was particularly interesting. In coming to America, Ifemelu had to take on this new identity that put her together with Ghanaians, Jamaicans, and a host of other nationalities that she previously felt little connection with. She also has to take on the history of African Americans, and be insulted by references to watermelons and tar babies that she doesn’t understand, all because this is what society expects from her.
The racial politics within this overarching label of ‘black’ is something Adichie negotiates with great sensitivity. The sense of a ‘black community’ plays out over and above more individualised communities and identities, though Ifemelu is acutely aware of the differences within it, particularly relating to how she sees herself as a Nigerian. There is a tension between ‘black’ as a catch all term that wipes out individual differences, and ‘black’ as a minority community and political force that is necessary to support life in America.
In her blog, Ifemelu purposely avoids stating her nationality. To her readers she is a “Non- American Black”, becoming the voice of a range of people and documenting their experience as a community. The ‘non-American black’ community is an entity in much in the same sense as the larger ‘black community’, coming together as a minority over and above cultural differences in order to negotiate the world in which they find themselves.
Americanah is written non-chronologically, taking you through a series of flashbacks from the moment Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria. It is written in the third-person limited, split between Ifemelu and Obinze with Ifemelu very much stealing the spotlight; where Ifemelu’s narrative is infused with her wit and energy, Obinze’s sections are slightly drier. The writing style is mainly conversational but with fantastic dialogue that really captures the speech patterns and phraseology of Nigerian English, British English, and American English. The narrative is also peppered with Ifemelu’s blog posts, which are written in her characteristically wry manner.
Americanah is a very enjoyable book to read, and the momentum of the main storyline is sustained through the flashbacks and the back and forth of the narrative, though the romance between Obinze and Ifemelu is somewhat overshadowed by the rich tapestry of cross-cultural experiences and questions of nationality that permeate the layers of the novel.