I stumbled on this book after a brief conversation about literature with a Nigerian friend. After reading it I once again found the answer to the question “why read”, and in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discovered a mind far more profound and original than most. Like most great works this powerful book afflicts us with many human sensations that are conveyed in simple language.
Princeton in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.
Thus with beguiling language, and with every sentence and chapter the reader can smell the world, with its alien and unpleasant presences, that Chimamanda describes
The book is a majestic and colossal edifice that follows the lives of two young Nigerians through their trials of youth, life abroad and the return to their homeland. Obinze is the son of a professor: a caterpillar that very slowly becomes a rich butterfly. And then there is his lover, Ifemelu. The latter is the main and compelling protagonist in the story.
When one encounters her, one has to alight and linger. Ifemelu is witty, a strong and a wild spirit. She is a heroine in the traditional sense. She can be loving and cold-hearted, submissive and predatory. She is intelligent, caring, and courageous. She can be an enchantress that can reduce a man into a docile slave. She takes a very big bite of life, and savours and survives both the good and the bad.
There are other minor characters that convey to us the various transactions and challenges of life. There is “Chief”, the lecherous tycoon who occasionally dishes out favours to the sycophants around him. The other is “Aunty Uju”, the dutiful, calculating and amiable single mother and her vain search for love.
Then there is the tennis coach who wants to be kept warm twice a week. He is an unconscionable sex-monster who conscientiously covers the train fare for his female comforters. This is the man a penniless Ifemelu briefly turns to when she desperately needed a job. Alone, and away from home she had to make choices, and that meant she sometimes had to accept life in whatever terms it submitted itself. At the time she was so broke that she even went into a murderous rage when a friend’s dog ate her bacon.
The book therefore successfully grapples with the confusion and deep sorrow of being torn away from a society from which one has all one has always drawn one’s strength, and making peace with a foreign culture and its values. It also exposes the cynicism of those Nigerians who were returnees from western expeditions, to some of the practices in their homeland: a partial dislocation of an émigré from his own roots. And for some of the characters it is because of these challenges that they finally discover who they really are.
Much as the story is about the forces that change humans and their societies, Chimamanda shows her dazzling qualities as a writer by delving deep into the emotional life of her characters. Love, as in life, has a very privildged place in the book. While most reasonable people would bet against love surviving, Chimamanda elevates it to its rightful throne.
Americanah is an epic drama that is a mirror of life. It is a symphony of language in which upon every word is displayed the imagination, craftsmanship and the genius of a young African writer who is a great student of life. It is a book that demands and deserves a re-read.
Long after completing this uncannily beautiful story, which has one in a spell throughout, it continues to administer delight to the reader in its manifold forms.
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