Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, _Americanah_

ADICHIE'S THIRD NOVEL has some of the scope of her second (Half of A Yellow Sun, about Biafra and the Nigerian civil war), since it is set on three continents, but also some of the intimacy of her first (Purple Hibiscus), since it focuses on a particular couple. I would say it is not quite as satisfying as either of those books, but certainly worthwhile.

Adichie has become one of my favorite novelists. Her prose is supple and brisk. She has a new subject matter: not the rural villages of the classic African novels, but the world of the educated, prosperous, and cosmopolitan. (The educated, prosperous, and cosmopolitan get more than their share of attention in most national literatures, I know, but in African literature they have been scarce, so it feels like Adichie is filling a yawning gap.) Best of all, Adichie's has a true novelist's eye and ear.  She notices things, she knows how people talk, she knows how to make her novel's world pop into being in your readerly imagination.

Americanah concerns Ifemelu and Obinze, secondary school sweethearts in Lagos. Circumstances separate them--Ifemelu departs on a scholarship to an American university; Obinze, after a difficult sojourn in the U.K., returns to Nigeria to a comfy job in the family business and an arranged marriage. Years later, Ifemelu comes home. Will their affair re-ignite?

Well, duh.  Yes.

Oddly, though, this is the least interesting part of the book. It barely seems to interest Adichie, who dashes rather cursorily through the reunion and the renewal of the affair. The novel seems much, much more interested in Ifemelu's years in the United States, which, truth to tell, are quite a bit more interesting than anything that goes on between her and Obinze.  We get her take on being an African in America, her take on African-Americans, her take on the men she is attracted to and who are attracted to her, her alliances, her antagonists, her friends, her loved ones, including a young male cousin struggling to grow up in a culture that sees young black males as the scariest of threats. We get several of her blog entries, which are always sharp and funny and would make good reading all on their own. Her conversations in the hair salon--a recurring element--are a highlight of the book.

One feels that the novel wanted Ifemelu's American wanderjahre to be some necessary maturation that prepares for the fulfillment of her homecoming, but she's more interesting when she is wandering.

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