Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 4th Estate, RRP£20/Knopf $26.95 (May), 400 pages
Americanah is the teasing nickname for a Nigerian girl who has settled in the US and it’s a word with loaded meaning for Ifemelu, the protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel.
Ifemelu, born and raised in Nigeria, is now completing a fellowship at Princeton. She has an African-American boyfriend, Blaine, with whom she has seemed, in a distracted way, to be happy. She writes a blog about the social politics of race in the US. But she has reached an abrupt point of crisis: “there was cement in her soul. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness. She scoured Nigerian websites, Nigerian profiles on Facebook, Nigerian blogs ... ”
For Ifemelu, “Nigeria became where she was supposed to be” and it is at the height of this crisis that we join her. For the first three-quarters or so of Americanah you settle into the conviction that you are reading a circadian novel. The action of the book’s present takes place in a hair salon in a Trenton backstreet where Ifemelu is getting her hair braided in preparation for her flight home to Nigeria. As she sits there she is poised between one life and another, her past unfolding in flashback; her future – bound to that past – awaiting her on the other side of a long-haul flight.
In particular, on the other side of the flight is part of her past that still feels like it might be part of her future. Ifemelu’s relationship with her teenage sweetheart Obinze – now married and with a young daughter – is unfinished business. In Lagos, he too starts to think about the past after she emails to announce her imminent return: “Ceiling, kedu? Hope all is well ...” Her old nickname for him was “Ceiling”, because when they made love, she said, even though her eyes were open, she did not see it.
You’re half-primed by the way this long main section is set up to expect the novel to end in a tense moment of ambiguity – its final paragraph finding Ifemelu leaving the salon, say, or stepping off a plane into the Lagos heat. Instead, I don’t think it spoils the plot to say that she does leave the salon, and brings the reader with her to her Nigerian homecoming. It would be stiff-necked to see this lopsidedness as a defect of construction – rather, it’s a service to the traditional satisfactions of storytelling. By the time Ifemelu’s hair is finally braided, you want to know what’s going to happen to her, and in an act of narrative generosity, Adichie tells us.
This is the author’s first novel for seven years. Her last book, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. In Adichie’s able prose, social comedy mingles with cultural polemic under the umbrella of an exuberantly romantic love story. It’s a novel about race and deracination, homesickness, the experience of, and need for, feeling at home. It’s also a novel that wants to tell you things. Here, in rich detail, is the immigrant experience: the humiliation of poverty as Ifemelu finds her feet in the US; her romantic history and her coming of age; the way she experiences her race, for the first time, as difference. Here, too, is the edgy comedy of her Nigerian childhood.
Some of the digs are sharp – and well-meaning white liberals are on the business end of the sharpest. At one point a young white woman, Kelsey, comes into the hair salon asking for corn rows: “Kind of like Bo Derek in the movie?” She tells the hairdresser: “Isn’t it wonderful that you get to come to the US and now your kids can have a better life?” Ifemelu recognises in Kelsey “the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticised America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was”. Ifemelu is splendidly cross when Kelsey starts to lecture her on how VS Naipaul’s A Bend In The River “made me truly understand how modern Africa works”.
When Ifemelu goes for an interview for a job as a babysitter her prospective employer announces: “I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings from wonderful rich cultures.” She is “smiling the kindly smile of people who thought ‘culture’ the unfamiliar colourful reserve of colourful people, a word that always had to be qualified with ‘rich’. She would not think Norwegian a ‘rich culture’.” Such moments aren’t subtle – Adichie tweaks these characters in the direction of caricature – but with Ifemelu’s blogged reflections on race they add up to a lightly dramatised essay on the persistent second-order racism of the privileged white liberal.
The polemical aspect of Americanah, though, is secondary to what it does as a novel. It presents a warm, digressive and wholly achieved sense of how African lives are lived in Nigeria, in America and in the places between.
Sam Leith is author of ‘The Coincidence Engine’ (Bloomsbury)