Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah 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.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Baba Segi is a Nigerian businessman with four wives: Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle (each named after their first born child, apart from Bolanle who has not had children). Bolanle is Baba Segi’s newest wife and the only one who is a university graduate. Baba Segi is very proud that a woman with a degree has chosen to join his household, but he is growing concerned about the fact that she has not yet conceived a child – after all, he has already had seven children with his other wives, so what is the problem with Bolanle?

This novel by Lola Shoneyin shows us what it is like to be part of a polygamous marriage and how Baba Segi’s wives feel about it. There are chapters narrated by all four wives and also Baba Segi himself, giving us a range of different perspectives and insights. These alternating narratives allow us to explore the complex relationships between the four women and their husband. As the title suggests, the wives all have secrets in their pasts and not everything is quite as it seems on the surface.

The position of each wife within the family, as well as her personal background, seems to determine the way she reacts to the arrival of Bolanle. The first and third wives, Iya Segi and Iya Femi, are very cruel and hostile towards her, but through their own narratives we gradually learn more about them and why they behave the way they do. They are suspicious of her education; they are jealous because with each new wife the amount of time they can spend with Baba Segi is decreased – and of course, with each new addition to the family, there’s a greater chance of their secrets being discovered.

I found it confusing that we weren’t always told who was narrating each chapter. If the characters had all been given distinct voices of their own I would have had no difficulty working out who was speaking, but they just weren’t distinctive enough for me – I thought Iya Segi and Iya Femi in particular sounded very similar. Sometimes I was halfway through a chapter before it became obvious who the narrator was. I can see why the author decided to write from different perspectives, but something as simple as stating the narrator’s name at the start of each chapter would have avoided any confusion.

Although it deals with some serious subjects, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives is written in a very light, humorous style and I’m sure this book would be enjoyed by a wide range of readers. And yet, while I did find it an interesting and entertaining read, I think I would prefer to read a more serious novel on this topic. This was a good book rather than a great one, I think – or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it.

The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams

The Echo Chamber is narrated by Evie Steppman who was born in Lagos in 1946. Evie has always considered herself to have a remarkable sense of hearing – she even remembers listening to her father telling her stories while she was still in the womb – but now that she’s getting older she can’t hear as well as she used to. Sitting in her attic in Scotland surrounded by diaries, maps, postcards and other items from her past, Evie decides that it’s time to write the story of her life.

This is an interesting and unusual book which encourages the reader to think about sound in a new way. It made me really appreciate the everyday sounds that we take for granted.

At first I found it difficult to form an emotional connection with Evie as a person. There were other characters that I found more interesting – I was particularly fascinated by the character of Evie’s grandfather, Mr Rafferty, a watchmaker who tried to create a clockwork replica of his late wife. And so I appreciated the inclusion of two chapters in which we get the chance to read Evie’s lover’s diary; seeing her through someone else’s eyes gave an extra dimension to her character. I also enjoyed the chapters which dealt with Evie’s childhood in Nigeria during the final years of British rule.

The Echo Chamber is written in a number of different formats – diary entries, question and answer sessions, stories-within-stories – and although I’m not sure this really worked for me it did add to the originality of the book. I didn’t find it an easy read, but as a debut novel I think Luke Williams can be proud to have come up with something so different and imaginative.

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“I do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria, together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
~Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu

Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of three central characters before and during the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. The first character we meet is Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old boy from a small village, who comes to the town of Nsukka to take up a position as houseboy to Odenigbo. Odenigbo is a university professor who regularly plays host to a lively gathering of friends who are all very opinionated on the political issues facing Nigeria. His girlfriend, Olanna, is the daughter of a rich businessman and is an educated woman with a degree in sociology. Early in the book she travels to Nsukka to live with Odenigbo and Ugwu. The third main protagonist is Richard Churchill, an Englishman drawn to Nigeria by his interest in Igbo-Ukwu art. Richard falls in love with Kainene, Olanna’s intelligent and sarcastic twin sister.

This is the first book I’ve read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and also the first time I’ve read anything on this subject. However, my unfamiliarity with the history, politics and geography of Nigeria wasn’t a problem, because the book explained things very well, on a personal, as well as a political level. The important thing to understand is that the nation of Biafra was formed when one of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, the Igbo, attempted to secede from Nigeria and establish their own country – but the newly-created Republic of Biafra received little support from the rest of the world and lasted less than three years. The Biafran flag (shown to the right) consisted of red, black and green horizontal stripes, with half of a yellow sun in the middle.

The book has an unusual structure: as well as being told from the alternating viewpoints of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, the story also moves backwards and forwards in time. This structure didn’t really work for me, as I felt it disrupted the flow of the story. It also took me a while to start to feel anything for the characters, which was a problem for me at first. What I did like, though, was that the central protagonists were all from very different backgrounds which gave us the opportunity to see things from three entirely different perspectives.

Then suddenly, the Republic of Biafra was established, the war began, and from this point I became swept into the story and really began to love and care about the characters. We were given some vivid and harrowing descriptions of the suffering of the Biafran people – how children were dying of starvation, how people were murdered and abused, how homes were being destroyed. There’s one memorable scene where Olanna is sitting next to a woman on a train who is holding a calabash containing the severed head of her daughter. There was a lot of violence in the book, but I never felt that it was gratuitous.

The characters all develop over the course of the story, which is always a good thing. Ugwu was probably my favourite character. At the beginning of the book he arrives in Odenigbo’s home as an uneducated teenage boy, who feels bewildered by the new life he has suddenly been thrust into, but as he learns he grows in confidence and becomes a valued member of the family. However, there’s an incident near the end of the book that disappointed me and made me lose respect for him, although the fact that this occurs shows us how war and fear makes people behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally.

The other character I found particularly interesting was Richard. As an Englishman and initally an ‘outsider’, he comes to consider himself a Biafran and wants to write about his experiences, but eventually begins to question whether it’s right for him to tell this story or if it should be left for somebody else to tell. There were also several scenes which took place towards the end of the war when he was accompanying two American journalists who had come to report on the war. The ignorance and insensitivity of the journalists gives an idea of how the situation may have been viewed by some of those outside Nigeria.

There are a few surprises at the end of the book and it certainly didn’t conclude the way I was expecting it to. I can’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book but I’m glad I read it because I now have a much better understanding of this period of Nigerian/Biafran history – and also because the story itself was so moving and one that really affected me.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in which Odenigbo explains why his mother, a woman from a small bush village, feels threatened by an educated woman like Olanna.

“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”

Highly recommended