Americanah opens with a hair salon and a major turning point. Ifemelu has decided to close her hugely successful blog, break up with her Black American boyfriend, sell her apartment and (after 13 years away) return to Nigeria.
She tells herself there’s no specific cause for the move, just “layer after layer of discontent that settled in her, and formed a mass that now propelled her”. But while she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided for this monumental trip home, she thinks of the Obinze, “her first love, her first lover, the only person with whom she had never felt the need to explain herself”, and it’s clear part of her homesickness is the longing to see her former flame. Impulsively she fires off an email to Obinze informing him of her return.
Cut to Obinze who receives her email as he sits in Lagos traffic. From his reaction we know the feelings are mutual, which is complicated since he is now a husband and father.
Amidst the turmoil Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love and are then forced apart, Ife to America, Obinze to England.
The story then leaps back to their youth plunging us into 80s Nigeria where the economy is faltering, the education system disintegrating and the only way to get ahead is to be rich and connected or to leave. Amidst the turmoil Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love and are then forced apart, Ife to America, Obinze to England. The tale then zips back and forth in geography and time until wending its way back to Nigeria for the dénouement.
There are no perfectly moral characters in Americanah (though Obinze comes pretty darn close), but the cast are fully-formed, sympathetic and fascinating people. Particularly Ifemelu. She’s a bright, bold and inquisitive woman whose experiences form a natural vehicle for exploring BIG ISSUES without lecturing. “When you make the choice to come to America, you become Black,” she opines in her blog Raceteenth, “Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” Much of her musings are on the issue of race, it’s a revelation for someone who’s never experienced it as an obstacle before. Placing her in the US during Obama’s first campaign for presidency is very cleverly timed considering all the soul-searching the election prompted.
Chimamanda’s writing is as insightful as ever. She ploughs exuberantly into some heavy themes (class, cultural identity, African/American/West Indian discord) and though this adds a density to the book, for the most part the strong narrative and compelling characters keep the train firmly on the tracks.
Ultimately Americanah is a love story, an epic tale of boy-meets-girl and then…