19 July 2013

Americanah

A slightly edited version of this review first appeared in Mint Lounge.

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel and fourth book, has an abiding feel to it in the way of a sheathed dagger: elegant, menacing, heavy, and somehow tender, as though it quickens the pulse to soften the heart. Its protagonist, Ifemelu, is brilliant, beautiful, and successful. She has just completed a writing fellowship at Princeton University, runs a successful blog on race in America, is regularly invited to speak at conferences, owns a condominium, and is in a not-unhappy relationship. But Ifemelu finds unarticulated longing simmering within the tepid embrace of contentment, and decides, without ever deciding to decide, to move back home to Nigeria. Ifemelu’s first love, Obinze, meanwhile, has endured a brutal time in England as an undocumented immigrant living a dangerous, lacerated life on the periphery of the law.

In Adichie’s first two books, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, Nigeria is sculpted with the loving, smouldering wisdom of writing from home and country. In Yellow Sun, especially, the interloper experience is mocked with exquisite grace. Yet, in Americanah, that is just what Adichie explores. But how masterfully she does it! With Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in England, Adichie unmasks the polite, well-formed niceties of the post-racial world and the sometimes simplistic politics of dislocation. If the truths are uncomfortable, they are meant to be. In Ifemelu’s time in America, especially, Adichie sets ablaze the dramatic distinctions between being a non-American black and a black American with observations that are at once comical and forlorn.

Within the main narrative, the unblunted incisiveness of the outsider perspective is entirely free of malice despite its withering insights. In describing a white liberal employer, she writes: “[...] for Kimberly, the poor were blameless. Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty, because their poverty had canonized them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” In the passages often and freely quoted from Ifemelu’s blog, though, there is an endearing tartness that is chatty and fierce at the same time: “Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care. So what if you weren’t ‘black’ in your country? You’re in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes.”

At the heart of it is a remarkable story: a love story with depth and heart and sweetness. In the final bend of the book, thirteen years since they last saw each other, Ifemelu and Obinze are both back in Lagos, watching their histories, separate and shared, arch out into an uncertain and looming future that they’ve barely begun to negotiate. Their years apart have armoured their defenses, but Lagos, with its messy abundance of people and opportunity, tethers them, somehow, to each other with devastating vulnerability.

Adichie captures, with a sort of wry, delicate ease, the ordinary decisions of our lives – the sudden ones that come upon us in quick, breathless whimsy, the desperate ones which push us with serrated edges into the lives we had never imagined for ourselves, and the lingering ones that we find ourselves slipping into almost accidentally. With sharp, melancholy haste, Ifemelu decides to cut off contact altogether with the man she deeply loves; with quiet mortification, Obinze finds himself breaking laws only to live a desolate and hopeless existence; and everyone in the book finds their worlds made cheerlessly and noisily of relationships fostered from familiarity, evenings driven into a social abyss of forced laughter and camaraderie, and careers forged half-heartedly from languor.

The book’s most sublime strength is how laughingly it slices the sundry tragedies of getting by. Ifemelu’s isn’t the privileged ennui of allowing life to happen to her; no, it is more piercing, less thoughtless than that. It is the vivid, anguished charm of being swirled slickly into success and movement and loss and love that brings defiant, intelligent, and independent people to sometimes look back at a life of changes and to wonder, with balmy surprise, how they got here.

Here, then, is a prose stylist with heart: with so much heart that Americanah, which is a simple tale, really, that could just as well have been quietly alive and fervent and real and still have been a fine book indeed, adds up to so much more: it is fluttering and palpitating and bounteous and, through it all, endlessly, staggeringly beautiful.

3 comments:

Dancing Fingers Singing Keypad said...

This is a very insightful review of Chimamanda's latest! I have read her previous work including "Purple Hibiscus", "Half of a Yellow Sun" and some short stories and I truly enjoy, admire her work. Will definitely catch up on Americanah now, thanks to this review.

Hilda said...

Great!

Chris said...

This is gorgeous!

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