When the unstable political landscape of 90s Nigeria causes endless strikes across its university network, nineteen-year-old Ifemelu accepts a generous communications scholarship in Philadelphia, on the understanding boyfriend Obinze will soon follow. But when the embassy denies his application, a series of traumatising events causes their long-distance relationship to disintegrate, and he decides instead to try his luck as an illegal immigrant in Blunkett’s Britain. Americanah opens with Ifemelu’s decision to return home to Lagos after thirteen years, where Obinze is now a successful realtor with a beautiful wife and child. Told largely through flashbacks, in sections alternating between the two once-lovers, this is a story of how a nation’s identity profoundly affects its citizens’ lives, and how the spirit fights to survive in an uncertain, hostile world.
The most striking aspect of Americanah is how it handles time. As we slowly come to understand what happened in the intervening decade, years are folded in on one another like origami paper, stories skipping ahead before doubling back on themselves, in constant motion. During a bleak scene of rejection or abandonment, brief glimpses are given to better times ahead, the same characters reunited, important connections thus mapped out for the reader. The overall effect is of a self-contained world, a universe with set rules and boundaries, that does make sense, even if we can’t see it yet. Though self-assured, highly principled, and quick to cast judgement upon others, the protagonists are ultimately hypocrites — Obinze who does business with corrupt kingpins, Ifemelu whose relationships are just as transactional as those of the “weaker” women around her — but that they are allowed to be hypocrites, while still being likeable, is refreshing. Adiche has no interest in flat-packing the complex lives of her characters. In many ways a campus novel that naps through its classes, this is still an incredibly literary book, in which characters enjoy reading for reading’s sake — not simply as an intertextual device. Citing Chinua Achebe feels a little easy, but Adiche really does wear Things Fall Apart (1958) on her sleeve, and persistently signposts less prominent writers of colour from across the continents, giving credit (and cutting criticism) where it’s due.
Endless reviews describe Adiche as a “master storyteller”, her prose “able” and “wise”, which I first took to be a vaguely patronising (or worse) form of praise, but in the end it all made perfect sense — she’s just so good. I fell headlong into this book from the very first page, and found myself pining for its vivid world whenever I had to step away. Upon finishing, my immediate instinct was to crack open Half of a Yellow Sun (Adiche, 2006). But the book’s sticking points are hard to miss, and widely cited. Excerpts from Ifemelu’s race blog grow increasingly frequent and unnecessarily long, and her writing style is a little too snarky to fully connect with — particularly amidst the empathy and warmth of Adiche’s wider narrative. From the very opening chapter, easy conversation switches without warning to Platonic dialogue, with characters seeming almost to glaze over as they take up Strong Positions on Big Issues relating variously to racism, politics, inequality, corruption, and hair. That such weighty topics are raised and given due respect in what is ostensibly a love story is impressive, and Adiche’s easy style negates any preachy overtone, but her intentions really are about as subtle as a brick through a window, and it does sadly detract from the overall effect.
Still, there’s a reason everyone’s talking about this book, and with the recent announcement that Hollywood darling du jour Lupita Nyong’o has bought the rights to produce, it’s safe to say it’s set to become ubiquitous. The prospect of a contemporary Afrocentric blockbuster — in which no more than a quarter of the central characters can possibly be white or even American — is truly exciting, and I can’t wait to see how a story so rooted its characters’ internal world is adapted for screen, not to mention its immersion in blogging culture.