[[[THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS, PARTICULARLY AT THE END.]]]
This is ridiculously late, but better late than … well, whatever.
I basically knew I was going to like Americanah before I began reading it. I like when books are dealing with real issues, and I like semi-autobiographical books. And I knew I liked this writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from her previously critically acclaimed book, Half a Yellow Sun. Americanah got a huge amount of hype, and although I tried to avoid some of it (because I was set on reading it), I had already heard a good deal about what the book was “about”.
In some cases, it is hard to say what a piece of fiction is “about”, but some books lend themselves to being about something. This book, to be honest, is one of those: it is about race, and the experience of being black in the US, and the experience of becoming aware that you are a race by going somewhere else. All of those are things I’m interested in.
Americanah spends most of its time in the US, spanning a young Nigerian woman’s life in university and graduate school in the north-east of the US. It is very well written, and has some recognizable, understandable and sometimes a bit clichéd characters: the Nigerian woman (the main character) is the most complex. Most or basically all of the men are boyfriends/lovers of the main character, and they are more one-dimensional: a white sporty rich guy, an African American professor, and a Nigerian married man. Each felt a bit too perfect a version of this stereotype, either not flawed or not multidimensional enough to be their own real person.
Even though these characters – and some of the minor characters – feel a bit fake or forced, they also show that Adichie has a strong eye for uncomfortable truths about the US in particular. Perhaps they feel so forced because they are so recognizable. They are indeed naturally occurring specimens in the US race spectrum.
The same really goes for the blogging voice: the voice of the writer is so strong and powerful and … Adichie-like (beautiful writing), but the voice of the blogger is so different: something like antiseptic or distant or forced in comparison. It seemed to me – and this is what Adichie seems to have said in interviews – that she enjoyed making up a blogging voice, and I liked it (I would have read this blog if it were real), but I know that it annoyed some readers.
I really loved this book – especially the first two-thirds – and thought it was important, but it is also flawed. It says things that we as Americans cannot say aloud about our country, and it is uncomfortable at points. I am not as sold on the end parts – the Nigerian parts towards the end. She has written in beautiful depth and detail on Nigeria before, but Nigeria felt a bit muted in this book – much less vivid and emotionally alive than the American parts.
But perhaps all of the press, and even this blog above, gets the book a little wrong. If you think that it is about race, and the Nigerian parts are not really “about” this. In that sense, you have to sort of set out when reading this book to understand that the book is, yes, about race, but it is also about leaving home and all of the identities that that process spawns. So that means that it is about turning into a black person by going to the US, and then understanding that identity, and then going back and not being able to use that identity. In some senses, I liked that part too, and found it familiar for my own globe-trotting life.
A final point [this is the real spoiler section]: I was not sure if the resolution with her first love was a bit too clean: some part of everyone wants to go back to that first, easiest love, before you knew about the world or who you can be in other places (good and bad). I am not sure what resolution I would have wanted at the end of the book, but I guess I don’t know how I feel about story lines that take people around the world and end up with their “true” or first love… it just makes it seem easier than it really is to go back.