As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.
Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face?
Whenever critics praise something en masse, I automatically assume the worst, so I was pleasantly surprised when I flew through the first one hundred pages and felt engaged with the story. I enjoyed the Nigerian section of the book, it was an insight into a culture and country that I knew little about, barring the football.
Americanah attempts to dissect many social problems, and as you would expect race is a big factor, as is class, a nod to how organised religion can fleece the flock, not to mention hair issues, which was something I didn’t expect to become interested in, although the more it was spoken about the less bothered I became.
After the first half of the book, I became increasingly disillusioned, because whilst there is plenty to think about, it’s ultimately a preachy novel and doesn’t bring much new to the table. The conclusion disappointed too, which annoyed me as it wasn’t a satisfying pay off for the grind that the latter half of the book was.
There were things I liked about the book, exploring the attitudes of Africans to each other when abroad, the struggles of fitting in versus retaining one’s own culture, the changes in attitude when returning to Africa. There were times when I considered if I had had any foot in mouth conversations, as its always good to self-examine.
If the annoyances listed above were the only things, then it wouldn’t have been much of a problem and I would have found the book to be a better than average read but there was much more that dragged the rating down.
The main problem I had was with Ifemelu, she never developed, she didn’t learn from her mistakes yet constantly transplanted the high standards she herself didn’t meet, onto others. By the end I found her unlikeable and wondered if some of her problems stemmed from her family upbringing and not from race issues.
Britain is a placed obsessed only with immigration, it didn’t feel particularly like a particularly representative view of the country. I appreciate it was seen from an outsider’s perspective but it was very two dimensional. There is an interesting view of America, the look at its unique type of racism is very well examined, to balance that we have the endless dinner parties where people are introduced to spout uneducated, racist, or well-meaning but ultimately offensive opinions. These caricatures disappear after their job is done which lessens the impact of what could have been a worthy examination.
When the momentum of Americanah slows, the repetitiveness becomes noticeable and frustrating, the themes tackled are too defuse so the book becomes overlong and messy, and most annoyingly the love story is only there as a literary device to link the characters and really doesn’t bring a great amount to the book.
Although Americanah has its moments they become too infrequent as the novel progresses, it all adds up to a lack of impact which more severe editing may have remedied. I did a quick search for the best African literature and this book wasn’t included, which heartens me, as even through my own meagre travels I have found much more interesting works from the continent and will be looking to supplement them with more soon.