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Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a full, rich novel, informed by an acute awareness of race, class and gender. If the author seems a little too in love with her central character, that flaw is more than compensated for by the astuteness of her observations of contemporary American and African life as seen through the eyes of her central character, Ifemelu. Here’s a random selection of some of my favourite passages from Americanah:

In Nigeria, there is “the unsubtle cowering of the almost rich in the presence of the rich, and the rich in the presence of the very rich; to have money, it seemed, was to be consumed by money” (31)

And of life in a small town: “She thought it too slow, the dust too red, the people too satisfied with the smallness of their lives.” (109)

Yet, when she goes to America to study, she writes a friend “We watch films in class…They talk about films here as if films are as important as books” 167

As she moves up in the world, she attends a party where “A couple spoke about their safari in Tanzania. ‘We had a wonderful tour guide and we’re now paying for his first daughter’s education.’ Two women spoke about their donations to a wonderful charity in Malawi that builds wells, a wonderful orphanage in Botswana, a wonderful microfinance cooperative in Kenya. Ifelmelu gazed at them. There was a certain luxury to charity that she could not identify with and did not have. To take ‘charity’ for granted, to revel in this charity towards people whom one did not know – perhaps it came from having had yesterday and having today and expecting to have tomorrow.”

Yet, moments later, Ifemelu longs “to be from the country of people who gave and not those who received, to be one of those

who had and could therefore bask in the grace of having given, to be among those who could afford copious pity and empathy.” (209)

Of her first American lover, a privileged white man: “And the thought occurred to Ifemelu that she did not like charm. Not Curt’s kind, with its need to dazzle, to perform. She wished Curt were quieter and more inward. When he started conversations with people in elevators, or lavishly complimented strangers, she held her breath, certain that they could see what an attention loving person he was. But they always smiled back and responded and allowed themselves to be wooed.” 268

Her next romantic partner is an American Black, a high-minded university professor at Yale; it happens that Ifemelu tells him what she believes is a harmless lie, but “He was looking at her as though she had reached in and torn away his innocence, and for a moment she hated him, this man who ate her apple cores and turned even that into something of a moral act.” (427)

The novel’s denouement seems a little too romantically perfect for this cynical reader, but Adichie is certainly a keen observer and an engaging storyteller.

— JoAnn McCaig