Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerian people who have very different experiences of immigration. Ifemelu leaves Nigeria as a young woman to complete her studies in America. Thirteen years later she is still there, having established a successful career for herself as a blogger, but she has now made the decision to go home. Before she returns to Lagos, Ifemelu goes to an African hair salon in Trenton, New Jersey, to have her hair braided – a process which takes six hours, giving her time to reflect on all the things she has learned and observed during her years in America.
Obinze, who was Ifemelu’s boyfriend before she left Nigeria, also has dreams of going to America but is unable to obtain a visa and ends up working in London as an illegal immigrant. Obinze and Ifemelu are eventually reunited in Lagos, but will their love have survived so many years of separation?
As promised on the book cover, there is a love story to be found in Americanah, but this is not the main focus of the novel. The focus is on Ifemelu and her life in America, with several chapters following Obinze and his experiences in England. On arriving in the country that will be her home for the next thirteen years, Ifemelu faces a lot of challenges and difficulties, ranging from finding a job to learning how to cook hot dogs! She has many encounters with examples of racism (sometimes very subtle and sometimes much more obvious) and at the other end of the scale, people who are trying too hard to avoid talking about race because they’re afraid that they might cause offence. All of this gives Ifemelu plenty of material for her blog, which she calls Raceteenth, or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.
Some excerpts from Ifemelu’s blog posts are included in the book and are fascinating to read, particularly when she writes about the differences between being a black American and a non-American black person. Something I found interesting was Ifemelu’s comment that “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” This is in contrast to her cousin, Dike, who leaves Nigeria with his mother as a very young child and so has a very different perspective on life.
While I didn’t love Americanah quite as much as I’d hoped to, it was full of insightful observations and it’s a book that I would recommend to everyone, whatever your race, nationality or skin colour. As a white person, I confess that many of the aspects of race discussed in the novel are things that have never even occurred to me. So, as a commentary on race and immigration, I thought this book was excellent – the best I’ve read on these subjects. The various devices Adichie uses (blog posts, discussions at dinner parties, the conversations of the women working in the hair salon) give her an opportunity to explore important issues in an interesting and often witty way rather than just lecturing the reader.
Purely as a novel, though, I thought Americanah was less successful. It felt a lot longer than it really needed to be, considering the plot is not a particularly complex one, and while I was interested in following Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s separate storylines, I found I didn’t really care whether they got back together at the end of the book or not. I think for me personally this is a book I enjoyed on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one, which is not necessarily a negative thing, but probably the reason why, of the two books I’ve now read by Adichie, I prefer Half of a Yellow Sun to this one.