Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah book cover

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This is so far the best book I’ve read this year. It is a book by author receiving much attention on social media and now I see why. As I scroll through the Goodreads reviews I see many split reviews. You either hate it or love it. I am happy to say that despite reading some very negative reviews which delayed me from picking it up, I ended up loving it.

I think people were disappointed because they were expecting more of a romance, a story of a Nigerian couple who get separated when one of them moves to ‘the promise land’, the USA. Reading through the synopsis, this is what immediately will resonate with you. And yes, the book is about this, but so much more.

It is a character driven book and as such, plot is not as important. So, if you expect an intricate plot of separated lovers trying to get back together, you will be disappointed. But, if you read this with an open mind, getting rid of expectations you might end up loving it.

Why do I love it?

I like reading character driven novels. I am the type who likes to understand why people act a certain way, what motivates/drives them. So character driven novels like this one will give me an insight into the inner workings of the characters’ minds. I love how the books takes its time in explaining and describing the backgrounds of these characters. You see Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s lives, their families, friends, and you get a great insight into Nigerian culture, which is not something you encounter so often. At least I don’t.

The way Adichie describes Nigerian society makes you understand why Nigerians choose to emigrate, even at the risk of their own lives. If you live your entire life thinking that living in another country is the only way for you to have a better life, then you will want to live in another country. Obinze describes this perfectly. Here it is:

‘Alexa, and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.’

I like reading books which give me insight into societies and cultures unfamiliar to me. Americanah is the perfect book to read if you want to know about how life is in Nigeria and the life of Nigerians abroad. Media often portrays immigrants from African countries in bad ways. Granted, not all of them are model citizens, but all trees have bad apples.  And the struggle for survival makes you do things you never imagined doing. Not that bad deeds can be justified this way.

I loved this book because I felt it was written in a very honest and straightforward manner. I felt completely absorbed into the Nigerian way of thinking, the position of women in society, what wealth means, and how people living abroad are seen. Even though I have no previous knowledge of Nigerian culture and society I felt that this book describes it perfectly, with both pros and cons, without taking sides.

I think many of us won’t be able to identify with Ifemelu. But that is because we think about her from the perspective of our own cultures, with different sets of values and modes of expression. I’m not saying she’s perfect by any means, but as far as my understanding, the Nigerian way of being, or simply her way of being is very direct. She is outspoken and this might be perceived in a negative way, especially if one wants to be politically correct at all times, which means tiptoeing around subjects like race and class. Many times being correct means avoiding certain subjects, or talking in very general terms about them. An example would be the story when Ifemelu goes to a shop where there are two shop assistants, both of them described as tall and dark haired. One of them helps Ifemelu but she can’t remember her name, which is needed at checkout, for the commission. There was no way of identifying the right shop assistant other than actually naming one black and the other white, so the commission went to none of them, simply because the cashier refused to say the b word.

The book is a series of observations about society, culture, race, class and feminism. It is more than the characters and their lives, so if you are interested in these subjects, I urge you to pick Americanah up. It is a book through which you will experience a wide variety of emotions, sorrow, shame, fear, anger, pity, envy and love.

I divide the book in three parts: before, during and after leaving for America in case of Ifemelu and Great Britain, in case of Obinze. You will see how emigration changes people, both in good and bad ways. How some are lifted up and others are crushed. You will understand the struggle and the despair. How a foreign culture can make you forget about your own and how easy it can be to pretend you are somebody else and that remaining yourself is a choice you have to actively take. It is a book which will stay with me for a long time and one I will reread. I urge everyone to read it!

This was so much rambling, but I feel that I have so strong opinions about many if the subjects touched in this book, that if I begin to tackle them I will give too much away. This is not a book you should read reviews about (even though I’m kind of writing one). This is a book you need to read so you can form your own opinions about it. The only thing I ask is to read it with an open mind.

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