As a huge fan of Half of a Yellow Sun, I approached Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest book with admittedly high expectations, but reading the opening pages immediately felt like slipping back into a familiar world. Adichie’s hyper-sensitive descriptions indulged every sense so, despite the fact that I had never visited Africa, let alone Nigeria, I embraced the setting as if it were my own, tasting the Nigeria in which Americanah‘s protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, begin their lives. For a novel where location has an incredibly profound effect on lives, there could not be a more suited author. Adichie’s narrative is beautifully absorbing and richly challenging – a book that is clearly of the world, spanning across three continents, but also for the world, fearlessly addressing love, race, politics and selfhood.
Ifemelu and Obinze form a seemingly unbreakable bond as teenagers in Lagos, the strength of their relationship and commitment to each other forcefully resonating from the pages as around them, Nigeria cracks under military dictatorship. In an atmosphere of unrest and mass departure, the pair seek to escape the struggles of their homeland with America shining as a promising new home. But whilst Ifemelu successfully commences her studies abroad, Obinze is unable to join her, and, despite his desperately moving efforts, the distance, and the cultural impositions that arise as result, drive a period of silence between them.
Calling on her own experiences, Adichie explores the implications of Ifemelu moving to a country where she has to acknowledge race for the first time – ‘I only became black when I came to America’. In a country that distinguishes only ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’, Ifemelu starts a blog called ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black’, soon developing a widely recognised voice, providing a commentary and critique on racial perception in the US. The importance of language in capturing Ifemelu’s experience is overwhelmingly apparent and what I consider Adichie’s greatest talent – for example, her characters are ‘caramel’ or have the ‘undertone of blueberries’, not ‘black’ – and I found myself fiercely ashamed of my ignorance of many issues that were raised.
Obinze’s trials in London prove similarly eyeopening – after his visa has expired, he endures bearing a false identity, extortionate fees for an arranged marriage, all to be deported back to Nigeria. Upon Ifemelu’s return some years later, he has become an established part of the Nigerian economy complete with family and quality property, whereas she experiences once more the awkwardness of the outsider in a place that she once called home, and yet there is an energy between them that, against all odds, has remained defiant and magnetic, an instinctual pulse that pumps through the novel’s closing chapters and remained thumping inside me at its end.
Americanah was a powerful read that had me gripped and furiously turning pages right to the steps of my plane home. Adichie is the incredible author of a work that simultaneously resonates with unabated, provocative passion and thoughtful subtlety. I cannot wait to hear her read on Tuesday at the Baileys Women’s Prize Shortlisted readings – it’s going to be an unforgettable experience.