Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Title: Americanah
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre: Fiction
My Rating: 5 Stars
Summary: Easily one of the best books of 2013. Adichie proves that she’s a master story teller once again. 

From the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, a dazzling new novel: a story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home.
As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—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.
Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.
Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

My thoughts..

..when I started the book
“Why do people ask ‘What is it about?’” Ifemelu thinks. “As if a novel has to be about only one thing.”
And that line from the book describes the book perfectly. To summarize, it can be said that the book is about race and love (and hair!). Racial identity in the US, Ifemelu’s hair, and the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze are definitely the three most prominent themes in the book but it will be a gross understatement to say that those were the only things the book is about. Americanah is much more than a novel. It is like a complex work of art. There are so many layers to it and you can see as little or as much as you want.
After much anticipation, when I first started Americanah, I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I wasn’t held captive right from word one like I thought I would be. I read a few pages, didn’t see where it was going, put the book down, waited for a few weeks and then picked the book up to try again.. And that was something I never thought I would do with an Adichie creation.
The second time around, however, my experience was different. I wasn’t expecting as much from the book as I did the first time. I started reading it slowly and I let Adichie guide me and take me where she wanted me to go at the pace she wanted me to go in. And without realizing it, I was completely sucked in to the book.

..on the characters
The characters came to life. A very self-involved and strongly opinionated Ifemelu is a very difficult protagonist to work it. You can’t relate to her easily and she intimidates you as much as she intimidates everyone around her in the book. But none other than Adichie could have given so much life and character to Ifemelu. But this focus on Ifemelu has a down side. She overshadows every other character in the book. While Obinze manages to carve a little space for himself and stand out, the rest of the characters pale in to insignificance (almost!). But I am not complaining. Ifemelu’s character is a magnet and I found myself strongly drawn to her in spite of all her faults.

.. on the theme of racial identity
As an immigrant to the US, one of the things that has puzzled me most is the concept of racial identity. The perceptions of people of different races is something I am learning on an everyday basis and in many ways, Americanah was very eye opening. Throughout the book, Adichie handles the whole concept with so much ease and comfort. She doesn’t get tangled in the nuances. Her brilliance as a thinker and a writer is showcased beautifully in Ifemelu’s thought process and her blog posts. So many writers have attempted to capture the complexities of racial identity in the US. Most of them fumble through the topic and make it obvious that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. Not Adichie.

..on immigration and returning “home”
One of the concepts that every immigrant battles with is the idea of “home”. What is home? Is it the place you left behind years ago: A place that only exists in your memory because what it is now is not what it was when you left it. Or is it where you are now: A place that you fight to feel included in. Ifemelu and Obinze have similar thoughts about Nigeria when they are together in school but they move forward in their lives in very different ways and have very different immigrant experiences in the countries they go to. They finally both return, as very changed people to a very changed Nigeria. Again, hats off to Adichie for addressing the concept in a way that only she can – with so much clarity and lucidity.

.. on Ifemelu and Obinze
The complex relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze was one of my favorite parts of the book. After her extended stint in the US, she returns to Nigeria and Obinze. By this time, Obinze is married to Kosi – who is not exactly meek and mild but definitely more lovable than Ifemelu. Ifemelu waltzes back in to his life and they rekindle their romance and passion. As much as you dislike Ifemelu for selfishly disrupting Obinze’s marriage, you can’t help but root for them to get together because in so many ways Ifemelu and Obinze just belong with each other.
The only place I found the novel lacking was towards the end, where Adichie seems rushed to wrap it up. I felt that the dynamics between Obinze and Kosi and Obinze and the “new” Ifemelu could have been fleshed out a little more. We finish the book not knowing if his decision in the end (which woman to be with) is a well thought out decision or a temporary state of mind. But I guess, the end is just another dose of reality. Not every decision you take in life is well thought out. Sometimes, you flow with whatever feels right at the particular moment and then you are forced to live with the consequences of your actions.

..on the book
In short, I loved the book. The more I let the book soak in and the more I think about it, the more I seem to like it. I read the book over the summer and I read a few books after this, but this book is still fresh in my head. I feel like Ifemelu and Obinze are people I have known in real life. Americanah is nothing like either of Adichie’s previous novels and that’s one thing that makes me respect her more. I have read tons of reviews online where people list the things that they didn’t like about Americanah. I can’t disagree with most. But there’s something about the book that overshadows all the negatives. Just like Ifemelu, the book comes across as strong, opinionated, with faults but strangely lovable.


bermudaonion said...

This sounds outstanding!!

Ramya said...

It really is a fantastic book @bermudaonion. Have you read any of Adichie's books? I would very highly recommend all of them (2 other novels and one short story collection).