By Noel Ihebuzor
This is not a review in the formal sense of the word. Rather it is a collection of comments and scribbles I made as I read through the book – a book made of seven unequal parts.
Part 1 opens in Princeton USA and already introduces the reader to Ifemelu’s longing for home, her imminent home coming, her lovers – Blaine, Obinze and Curt. It also introduces us to Obinze’s wife, Kosisochukwu. The story then shuttles between Nigeria and the USA depending on whether the narrator is Obinze or Ifemelu. These two chapters in part 1, beyond the initial introduction to the principal characters and beyond their stage setting functions, are also very biting criticisms of the nouveaux riches in Nigeria and their fawning and fake lifestyles! Adichie’s dissection of the manners of the Nigerian elite in this section is rich in both sarcasm and pity. Some lines in this part do indeed float like butterflies but sting like bees. Here are two to illustrate – “mundane observations delivered as grand discoveries”; “middle-aged Lagos woman, dried up by disappointments, blighted by bitterness…” Great powers of description! This is certainly a writer with a very keen sense observation and a way with words. Consider again this very damning but apt observation of Nigerians “Everybody is hungry in this country, even the rich men are hungry but nobody is honest” And this piece of self-recognition and assessment by Obinze – “It was honesty that he valued; he had always wished himself to be truly honest, and always feared that he was not”. Adichie also indicts the nouveaux riches for their complicity with military regimes that raided, raped and ruined Nigeria. The preliminary examination of hair, color and culture are also commenced in part 1. The encounter with Aisha in the braiding salon is used to explore the theme of hair and bleaching further and Adichie leaves the reader in no doubt as to her position on these two matters. “Aisha was almost whispering…and in the mirror the discoloration of her arms and neck became ghastly sores” Fela coined the expression “yellow fever” to describe such skin variegations that arise in the African’s quest for skin lightening.
Part 2 (chapters 3-22) shuttles between America and Nigeria and narrates in part the early beginnings of the love between Ifemelu and Obinze. But it is more, as part 2 is a huge canvas on which Adichie paints a number of things – race, religion, relationships and relocation. The part also deals with enculturation/acculturation, situation driven associations, settling down to life abroad, the privations of life in America as well as coping strategies immigrants adopt. Also, featuring prominently in this part 2 is Adichie’s depiction of the early love between Ifemelu & Obinze which is done with a combination of simplicity, depth and some plausibility – though I found plausibility stretched a bit in one or two instances. The section also contains a criticism of the new Christianity in Nigeria. This criticism of the “new Christian theologies” (poverty or prosperity) overflows with sarcasm, bathos and pathos! The sudden and abrupt changes and somersaults in the image and model of God in Ifemelu’s mother’s imagination – from the benign easy going God, then to an austere one and then to one that deals in prosperity are presented with a lot of deliberate mischief by Adichie. As we read, we find that the lady roves and roams from one church to another in search of God and an assured route to Him and these unending spiritual peregrinations are described in a manner that evokes a mixture of pity and some contempt from the reader. The feeling of contempt arises because Adichie cleverly manages to make us sense the absence of consistency in her faith and her actions, especially towards Uju and her affair with the General. But still, the reader is steered into sympathising with this troubled woman who is such an easy prey for fakes and false men of God. And all of this because Ifemelu’s dad had lost his job for failing to display the right level of obsequiousness! – We are told that “He was fired for refusing to call his new boss Mummy”.
The relationship between Uju and the General, in all its immorality and necessity, is also presented to the reader and we are led through Ifemelu’s eyes to judge it since she, Ifemelu, judges it harshly. However in doing this, Ifemelu herself is guilty of some “bad faith” since she benefits from a relationship she looks down on. Incidentally, relationships such as those flourished in Nigeria during the military dispensation and still thrive in our new democratic structure. These are relationship driven by need and greed – the need by young ladies for life styles their salaries can ill afford and the need by aging males for younger female flesh. The men exploit the wants of the young women and the young women in turn exploit the cravings and libidos of the aging males. Morality becomes a luxury and parents, uncles and aunties find it convenient to look away and pretend that they do not see what is happening. Most times, they accept the gifts which flow from such commerce-driven relationships and pretend that these are simply a reflection of the benevolence of an overgenerous male. Adichie manages the narrative here well and achieves a large degree of plausibility in many parts of it. However, I think that Chapters 6 and 7 contain the narrative flaw of plausibility in both dialogue and characterisation. In an effort to portray Uju’s moral bankruptcy in her role as the General’s mistress, Adichie occasionally over does things. Uju, a medical doctor, often lapses and speaks like a cheap “Mgbeke” and worse still asks Ifemelu to help her shave her pubic hair in readiness for a weekend of delight with the General, conveniently overlooking the moral danger she is exposing her younger cousin to. Also, it is very unusual for an Igbo lady to openly speak of such things as sex and extra marital escapades to her younger ones or to elders and yet Uju does this regularly in chapters 6 and 7. The General’s death in a plane crash appears to be too hastily contrived and tends to create the impression that the character had played role sketched out for him and needed to be quickly exited from the scene. Apart from these tiny narrative challenges, Adichie’s language still flows effortlessly with astounding effects even though here and there in this part one comes away feeling that the story line as well the principal characters have lost some depth and some essential “vraisemblance”. The reaction by Obinze’s mum to the pregnancy false alarm is one case in point and her remarks to Obinze and Ifemelu on the management of their relationship and sexuality read like a straight lifting from the speech of characters in a play written to promote responsible sexuality for young people! Not too convincing, even if earlier characterisation had sought to cast her as a liberal educated mother!
Chapters 8-11 focus on the unending strikes in Nigeria tertiary education and Ifemelu’s eventual relocation to America. Adichie succeeds very well in conveying to the reader Ifemelu’s initial disappointment with Brooklyn and the harsh existence that life is for Nigerian students there. The frost in her relationship with Aunty Uju, who is struggling to pass her qualifying examinations and living a life marked by privations, frightens and disturbs her. These chapters bristle with flashes of inspired prose, beautiful yet crisp and sometimes cutting – Bartholomew who comes courting Aunty Uju is described as an “exaggerated caricature” who actively pursued “airless arguments”. A line like “the strange naivety with which Aunty Uju had covered herself like a blanket” is simply beautiful and powerful as prose. “Bartholomew…spoke with an American accent filled with holes, mangling words until they were impossible to understand” is another one – biting and hard hitting. Chapter 12-16 take us further into Ifemelu’s journey into America. Her reunion with Ginika, her struggles to find some employment, her numerous disappointments, her growing frustration and desperation are all presented in a manner that has both sociological depth and sympathy. The presentation of Ifemelu’s humiliating encounter with the tennis coach is understandable as is the sense of guilt and uncleanness that chokes her afterwards but the prolonged grief and depression appear overdone.
The exploration of race, culture, enculturation, resistance and identity is done with mature sensitivity such that we feel the tensions, the patronizing condescension of the persons like Laura, the poorly concealed uncertainty of a Kimberley who employs Ifemelu as baby sitter, as well as the well-meaning paternalism of American NGOs working in Africa. Ifemelu’s gradual “Americanisation” in her speech is also convincingly narrated
We are also introduced to the tensions that exists between African Americans and African students in the lively exchanges that followed the viewing of the film Roots in one of Ifemelu’s classes. An interesting distinction is the one of “African American” and “American African” we meet in one of the chapters. Some winning lines crop up here and there “Professor Moore, a tiny tentative woman with the emotionally malnourished look of someone who did not have friends”. And of our unfailing relapse into self-criticism and castigation of our countries once we are abroad, Adichie observed with great insight – “And they themselves mocked Africa, trading stories of absurdity, of stupidity, and they felt safe to mock because it was a mockery born of longing, and of a heartbroken desire to see a place made whole again”. Wow!
In some chapters in part 2, especially the parts that deal with Ifemelu’s baby-sitting role and her relationship with Morgan and Taylor (Kimberley’s children) and her amazement at the American child rearing practices, the flow and energy stall, the story becoming insipid, and then in another, vitality, elegant prose and depth return. I found the relationship with Curt as a bit unnecessary, a bit contrived, a bit forced and one which contributes very little to the structure of the novel and to the characterization. Perhaps it is useful in the sense that it affords Adichie an opportunity to explore mixed race relationships and the tensions and adjustments that come with them.
After a lull towards the end of part 2, the novel comes alive again in part 3 with the treatment of life, race and immigration in the UK – after Obinze fails to get a visa to the USA. This part is done with sensitivity, commendable awareness of the inner working of the minds of characters, their fears and their pretensions and their coping strategies. The murky realities of the life of the illegal immigrant – working with fake papers, the extortion of shylocks who loan their identity cards to desperate immigrants, the humiliation of menial work, the pretended superiority of natives, the frustrations, the fake visa driven marriages, all of these are painted with a healthy dose of realism and sympathy. This section also bristles with superb prose. “He was, by turns, inflamed by anger, twisted by confusion, withered by sadness”. Of Emenike, Obinze’s school mate, Adichie says – “His was the coiled, urgent restlessness of a person who believed that fate had mistakenly allotted him a place below his true destiny”. Of Emenike’s attitude towards his wife she talks of “a mockery coloured by respect” and describes his dinner manners as reflecting “a careful but calibrated charm”. Immigrants and asylum seekers are described as people with a “need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” – Beautiful! Things end badly for Obinze and he is deported in the end.
Part 4 – examines race and how race conditions most interactions in the USA. Whereas the relationship with Curt enabled the author to examine the challenges and stresses of mixed race relationships, the relationship with Blaine is used to examine the various shades of race and blackness – an examination that is helped in many ways through the instrumentality of Ifemelu’s blog. It also allows her to take a stroll through history and present from the eyes a witness the tensions and joys that were the Obama march to the White House. Dike’s suicide attempt at the end of this chapter is a bit jarring and does not fit very neatly into the core of the narrative. Is this a technical fault? I am inclined to think so.
Part 5 is brief and the story shifts to Obinze and to the destabilizing potential a relink with Ifemelu is bound to have on his stable family life. As Kosi says and very perceptively – Obinze’s mind “is not here”
Part 6 – is shortest part of the novel and deliberately so to prepare the reader for ifemelu’s imminent return to Nigeria.
Part 7 – Narrates Ifemelu’s settling back to life in Nigeria and the reunion with Obinze. Nigeria is presented first through the eyes of Ifemelu and later through Dike’s innocent eyes. The X-ray is piercing, and alternates between empathic commentary and biting sarcasm. The claim of universality of corruption in Nigeria, the rent seeking behaviour of officials – all these come out in the conversation between Okwudiba, Olu and Obinze. Eventually the lovers come together, their physicality still as intense (“their bodies remembered and did not remember…but lying next to him afterwards…her body suffused with peace”) but the consequences are sad for third parties. The pains of love, the jealousy, the irritability of the mistress, the pettiness of women in love – all of these are depicted with great sensitivity in this last part.
Part 7 also allows the author to explore and expose some of the development and urban anomalies in Lagos – power outages, crater filled roads, expensive housing, the disguised prostitution of the working lady who is clearly living beyond her salary and who is being maintained by a lover or lovers, the growing culture of marital infidelity, the tartness and irritating competition amongst urbanised middle class Lagos women, the invasion of the gloss gossip magazine full of pictures, over brimming with titillating gossip but containing nothing of real value (existing mainly to pander to the vanities of the rich in my opinion), the meetings of returnees and been-tos from the UK and USA, doubly annoying by their empty pretentiousness, the growing intolerance in churches where bridesmaid are kept out of the church for skimpy dressing, the obsession with marriage by the likes of Ranyianyindu – these are all there and very expertly described. Indeed on a good day, these could actually provide material for another novel. The author demonstrates her ability to touch at the heart of one the drivers of Nigeria’s malaise when she comments through her characters of the mentality of scarcity that pervades Nigerian society and the Nigerian psyche, a mentality which makes rush and scramble for things even when there is no scarcity!
In all of these chapters, Chimamanda finds time to criticise most of the characters she creates – for their pettiness, for their ambitions, for the sale” of their persons and souls in their pursuits of life and living, for their cockiness, their failings, their foibles, their vanity – Blaine, Curt, Ginika, Ranyianyindu, Shan, Uju, Emenike – no one escapes.
The only persons who escape her mild tongue lashings, surprisingly or not surprisingly, are Dike, Ifemelu and Obinze. She is so benign in her treatment of their inadequacies, in their failings and in their betrayals and one wonders why. Ifemelu’s “self-sabotager” fling (Ginika’s expression) that ended the relationship with Curt is presented as irrational but is really not judged. She is mild in presenting the very damaging consequences of the relink between Ifemelu and Obinze and how the pursuit of pleasures from their pasts is going to destroy the delicate life that Kosisochukwu has built for herself and her young family
The whole story is told from the eyes of Obinze and Ifemelu and the fact that Ifemelu’s portion of the story telling has more space would also betray not just the sex of the writer but also her gender and her romance with feminism. But it is an unequal narrative. The flash back technique and non-linear disrupted sequence are maximally exploited to bind the story and also to glue the reader’s interest to the unfolding narrative and events. The blog inserts allow her to comment on a number of key issues, especially race and here, Adichie walks a fine line and walks it finely, talking about race as a black without being racist in the process.
Let me end by sharing my opinion on the main characters- Ifemelu and Obinze. They are human but not very moral characters. It could be said of them that “when they are good, they are very very good” and when they are bad, they are horrid! And do not ask me why! Which character am I most drawn to in Americanah? Kosi!. a beauty queen who loves her husband, dotes on him but who was never really loved by him and who gets such a raw deal in the end! The plight of this poor girl, this poor victim of two selfish lovers in an imperfect world makes me sad – but perhaps, I am over-reacting – but in life as in this book, my sympathies always go the unfairly treated.
Americanah is great book – great in the quantity of themes it treats and also great in the depth and quality with which it treats them. It weaves a story of love, lust and romance and uses it to examine issues of race, relations and the feeling of exile that one feels in a foreign land. It is also a critique of the Nigeria’s developmental challenges – a country where basic social services have long gone extinct and the story and the critique and handled by a writer with a great sensitivity to details and feelings.