Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah has just been nominated as one of six titles on the Baileys Prize for women's fiction.  The author, Adichie, is no stranger to the prize lists having already won [in 2007] the Orange Prize with Half of a Yellow Sun and has already garnered the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize with Americanah.   The bookies have her as second favourite for the Baileys.   Adichie is a Nigerian author who moved to the States when she was 19 to study and now divides her time between Nigeria and the United States.

Should she win it?   Let me say first of all, it is too long.   I have no problem reading a very long book if it is worth it but increasingly, the American market seems to favour the blockbuster while editors in Europe go for the less is more school of thought.   I feel a book should give you room and pause for thought and not handhold you through every little nuance of the narrator's mind. 

That having been said, there is much of interest in Americanah.   The story concerns childhood sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, who grow up in Nigeria and then Ifemelu, like Adichie, goes to the United States to study while Obinze travels to Britain.   More interesting than their love affair are their experiences as immigrants in two very different countries.   Adichie has the leeway that no African American probably has to comment on and criticise the nuances of race relations in the States.   Because of her failure to find work to support herself while studying, she takes up blogging and becomes immensely successful at recounting her experiences on line.   Obinze meanwhile, unable to get legally or illegally a social security number, living as an illegal but adopted by a liberal pc minded coterie in the UK, is having a totally different experience in a completely different culture.   This is the most interesting thread in the book I felt.  

A lot of Ifemelu's story is told as a flashback as she sits in a hairdressers having her hair expertly done before returning to Nigeria.   Initially, her account of how African curls are being dealt with using extensions, chemicals and weaves to try and achieve western white standards is fascinating but eventually I began to wonder if she would ever get out of the hairdressers.  

We are introduced to a third element then when Ifemelu does finally get back to Nigeria and that is her position as returned emigrant.   Her search for Obinze who returned much earlier and her problems in adjusting again to the Nigerian worldview are well portrayed.

Overall, Adichie paints an absorbing picture of the three cultures as seen from an African viewpoint with a lot of detail that would escape the native westerner and for this alone I would recommend the book.   She is easy to read but long-winded so the novel can frustrate at times and lacks the magic of a more tightly woven narrative.  

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