Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah coverI wasn’t particularly excited when my book group suggested that we read Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; I had heard good things about it, but its length and modernity were off-putting to me. Indeed, its very popularity was a bit of a turn-off. I vented a little on Twitter, and VL’s very own The Other Kirsty was one of the people who assured me that I would enjoy it, and not even notice the length. She was, of course, right.

The novel starts with Ifemelu going to find an African hairdressers in America. I could have read this scene for the whole book, honestly – and, in fact, it makes several reappearances as the book progresses. She has a fellowship at Princeton, and ‘her papers’, both of which put her at some distance from the African women braiding her hair – yet there is still a unity between them, whether or not they share her homeland of Nigeria; a unity she isn’t entirely happy about (she has no wish to meet the hairdresser’s boyfriends to persuade them to propose, or to share takeaway food in the middle of her appointment) but understands. And I learnt so much about hair-braiding techniques, and the length of time (six hours!) that they take to create.

In the middle of this scene a gauche white woman walks in to get her hair braided, not understanding how it works and trying too hard to show an appreciation for Africa. If this is a mirror up to the white reader, then I feel a little embarrassed. Truth be told, Americanah revealed to me how ignorant I am – but also helped inform me a lot. Much of the novel is taken with showing the differences faced by African-Americans and American-Africans (as Ifemelu puts it); that is, black people raised in Africa who now live in America, and black people raised in America. As Ifemelu also puts it – though I paraphrase – the former might be the grandchild of a mayor, while the latter’s grandmother wouldn’t have been allowed to vote. Race, Ifemelu writes, doesn’t really exist in Nigeria: she had never really thought of herself as black before she moved to the US. This whole topic had never really occurred to me, and it was fascinating to read about – without feeling too didactic.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie doesn’t feel didactic, that is; Ifemelu very much is. Not only is she straight-talking and a little rude and brittle at times in everyday conversation, she also writes a blog about race. It is called Raceteenth, which feels like it should be a pun, only I don’t get it – as it is, it just seems a very ugly word. As with all bloggers in literature, and unlike the majority of us in real life, she becomes successful, famous, and makes a living from the venture – so she is a speaker at many events, visits schools, so on and so forth.

Parallel to her life in America is that of Obinze, her high school boyfriend who made the journey, instead, to the UK – and had to work under an assumed identity. Most of the novel compares two cultures I can only observe as an outsider, American and Nigerian, so it was fun to have some England thrown into the mix – and she certainly captured the tone of the various echelons well. I particularly liked the van drivers Obinze worked alongside, and how friendly and genuine they were; no lazy stereotypes about racist working-class Brits here.

Americanah is such a rich and complex novel that writing about the plot is fairly pointless. There are so many more memorable characters – Ifemelu’s various boyfriends, for example, including a couple really lovable guys who are probably better off without her, and Obinze’s delight of a mother (more liberal than Ifemelu’s, and someone who helps introduce her to literature). In some ways, there is a long plot of Ifemelu and Obinze finding their way back to each other (or not) as both return to Nigeria, but this is not the way the reader is drawn through the novel. Indeed, the ending felt the weakest part, because it was focused too much on concluding something that felt too broad and detailed to be concluded.

Americanah, surprisingly, reminded me most of the Victorian novel. It is long and involved, but the structure is loose and all-encompassing. Events happen, people and places and observed, reactions are described and emotions explored, but all seem simply to be part of a full picture rather than a linear plot. The reader is completely immersed in this world. I barely thought about whether characters were likeable or not, or even what I wanted to happen to them; they were real, and what would happen would simply happen because they felt real. It’s a great achievement.

So, if you normally steer clear of modern fiction, you may well want to make an exception for this novel. I learnt so much but, more importantly, I fell deep into a narrative. And I have a new appreciation for hair.

13 comments on “Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  1. Elle
    January 20, 2016

    I loved Ifemelu’s didacticism. I thought Adichie was making a point about how we view loud or opinionated black women–that a reader’s initial reaction to Ifemelu might be repulsion at how “bossy” or “rude” she is says a lot about prejudices that can be totally unconscious but still present (like when we think of women with loud, high voices as “shrill” or “hysterical” even if they’re doing their job well or making valid points.)

  2. Cindy
    January 20, 2016

    I loved this book, too. Easy to read, informative, funny. And the length didn’t put me off (anything over 400 pages usually dampens my ardour). Told lots of people about it, including a Nigerian who’d never even heard of it *gasps*.

  3. Mary Smith
    January 20, 2016

    Thanks for the review. I have Americanah on my tbr pile beside the bed and keep putting other books on top of it – I think because of its length – but will put it on top now.

  4. Lisa
    January 20, 2016

    “Raceteenth” might be a play on “Juneteenth,” which is an annual celebration of emancipation in the African American community in the US. It marks the proclamation of emancipation in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 – months after the Civil War actually ended, freedom finally came to Texas.

    I’ve had this book on the TBR shelves for too long. Reading this makes me move it up the list!

  5. clbutor
    January 20, 2016

    Reading this book was difficult for me because the racial commentary was so pointed. It made you feel your own white privilege, which can be hard to take for over 400 pages. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it, mostly because of the writing and how whole and nuanced Ifemelu and Obinze were. I just loved their characters.

  6. Kirsty D
    January 20, 2016

    Yay! I’m so glad you liked it. I think it’s one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read.

  7. Pingback: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Stuck in a Book

  8. Kate
    January 22, 2016

    OK, sold. I’ve been circling around this book for too long. I’ll buy it.

  9. Jenny @ Reading the End
    January 22, 2016

    What Lisa said! I assumed that holiday was what “Raceteenth” was a reference to. I am so pleased you liked this book, Simon! Adichie is a gorgeous writer, I loved Americanah, and I am so very excited for whatever she’s going to do next.

  10. Sharon Robinson
    January 26, 2016

    Thank you for a smashing review. I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by the wonderful Adjoa Andoh, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ifemelu’s blog doesn’t come across as particularly didactic in audio; in fact, she’s frequently, painfully on the money in a lot of the things she says and she often made me laugh. I love the way Adichie allows her characters their full complexity; there are no plaster saints in her books and no easy villains either.

  11. A Little Blog of Books
    January 30, 2016

    I really loved this book – I’ve been meaning to read Purple Hibiscus for ages so must get round to it soon!

  12. Caroline (Bookword)
    February 1, 2016

    Very fair review. Two things about the novel spoiled it a little for me.
    I found the blog stuff unbelievable, especially as the posts were so long, had such long paragraphs, and (because it is a novel) we didnt have any visual material to stimulate us.Such a didactic blog is not likely to have the success attributed to it in the novel.
    Also I find devastatingly irresistable female heroines totaly irritating!
    But should be read too, for all the reasons you mention.

  13. samanehi
    October 24, 2016

    I’ve heard Adichie talked on some occasions and I’ve read all of her books but I fear Ifemelu’s personality the idea of her hair and opinion on race, I think it’s actually her own story, Adichie’s real story only edited.

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This entry was posted on January 20, 2016 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 21st Century and tagged , .



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