Review: ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

By Rhoda Gao

Nigerian girl, Ifemelu, meets Nigerian boy, Obinze. They fall in love of course. Girl leverages off Nigerian unrest to build an eventually successful public life in the US of A. Boy whisks himself off to England and lives dangerously and illegally before their paths cross again. Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s bestselling Americanah braids a tangle of narratives into a pretty good novel (after all, Americanah was feted as one of 2013’s best by the The New York Times Book Review), but it’s far from perfect.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood once said, “But the critic starts on day Seven” – critics have the easy job of tearing down authors’ God-like creative work, but taking apart Adichie’s latest piece is unfortunately too easy. Most of the plot is tethered together by Ifemelu’s blog posts about race (our heroine achieves success in the US as a blogger and writer), and though Adichie herself calls Americanah a “love story”, I’d like it better if she called (and understated) it as a blog-novel, something like a new generation, ethnic Bridget Jones or Sex and the City.

There is a purpose to my navel-gazing: Ifemelu (or is it Adichie?) uses everything as blog-fodder, from the badly dressed middle-aged white man, whom she graciously debunks stereotypes of because he offered “insight”, to the delusional Senegalese braider, whom Ifemelu avoids in deed and doles charity and empathy to in word and blog. By chapter 11, despite the bouts of empathy and reflection, she is something beyond the anthropological specimens she blogs of, and she becomes like the western male scientist – faultless. Those Ifemelu does not dehumanize, Adichie does: Ifemelu’s parents are the Nigerian franchise of Mister and Missus Bennett. Only one character survives the pigeonhole-ing exercise, but Obinze perspective is so sketched over that Americanah’s ending seems to be unfounded, and I am tempted to label him, for the lack of voice, as a weak male character.

We know Adichie can do better than this – Half a Yellow Sun was a searing, multi-voice epic. The insight and social commentary is good, if not a bit too much, and it reveals unintentionally, now and then, the error of over-galvanising a non-American black female hero. In one instance, Ifemelu is consoled by her unbecomingly perfect white boyfriend because an East Asian beautician refused to do her “different” eyebrows. I found myself becoming angry; East Asians themselves sometimes do not go to other salons because our eyebrows are different, but the scientifically observant protagonist (or is it Adichie?) missed this and classified it as racism.

Beyond the text-type confusion, the details are nevertheless exquisite and humourous – from Aunt Uju’s ingrown hairs, to the British-curriculum-loving, nouveau-riche Lagosian hustlers. But if you thought Things Fall Apart was more about yams than women, then read Americanah if you are more interested in race than relationships.

– Rhoda Gao

(Winner of the 2014 O-Week Intercultural Meet & Greet Giveaway)

There will be a place at our Launch Party, Thursday, September 25, 6:30 pm for those who would like to discuss and share their views on the book!