Colossal in Scope: Americanah

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I absolutely adored both Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun and was thrilled to find time to read Americanah before the Bailey’s Prize winner was announced!

Ifemelu and Obinze are high school sweethearts in Lagos, a place where a foreign passport is a status symbol. As time rolls forward both seek their fortunes abroad; Ifemelu in the USA and Obinze in the UK. Thirteen years later Ifemelu is the successful author of a topical blog and Obinze is a ‘big man’ back in Nigeria. Ifemelu has decided to be like many other successful expat Nigerians and move back herself, shrugging off the doubts that often creep into her mind.

First Impressions: There is something about Adichie’s writing style that draws you in. The novel begins with Ifemelu mundanely waiting for a train to go and get her hair braided. Within three pages Adichie had managed to tell a story everyone could find something to identify with whether they are African, African-American, White American, or White (other).

Highlights: I loved the scenes in the hair salon as it provided a voyeur insight into how hair braiding businesses work! I thought the charcterisation was interesting as Ifemelu’s two American love interests were almost extreme caricatures but they probably needed to be in order for Ifemelu to learn and grow. Interestingly, Ifemelu was often a silent observer herself. I thought that all the high school friends in Nigeria were quite interchangeable but I assume that may have been the point. Adichie indicated that many Nigerian women will compromise their wants to have a ‘big man’ and experience luxury; the shallowness of so many lives has saddened me. I thought the constant conversations people started about charity work they support in Africa quite an accurate sign of the times and loved one character’s comment that doctors aren’t just needed in Africa but also in small northern English towns where hospitals have real staffing issues.

If I was an editor: As a Londoner, I would have loved to read more of the nitty gritty about Obinze’s UK experience! On a more serious note, I did feel the novel was a bit too long. I enjoyed the journey Ifemelu took with her blog as it became inextricably linked with her relationship with Blaine. However, Ifemelu’s reporting on the layers of covert racism had been successfully made earlier in the piece and there was clearly only frustration left in her relationship with Blaine. While people remain in stagnant relationships in real life, I don’t necessarily want to read about it unless it adds to the story. I did also wonder at Ifemelu’s social circles in the USA; is this really a common experience for all university educated African migrants? Finally, I will be honest and say the end lacked the emotional punch I was hoping for.

Overall: Brilliantly written and colossal in scope but unfortunately let down by the ending. Perfect in so many other areas. My pick for the Bailey’s Prize.

Americanah: 4 stars


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8 thoughts on “Colossal in Scope: Americanah

  1. I ADORED Half of a Yellow Sun, and after losing Purple Hibiscus when moving house I was delighted to get it on Kindle at a bargain price (when I buy books on my Kindle I feel like one of these women who smuggle shoes into the house, then lie about the price when rumbled. Or when wearing a – clearly new – dress, say, oh, this old thing? Had it for years…Still, at least a novel is cheaper than clothes. Anyway, I digress. I have Americanah, in paperback, and have sneaked a read of the first few pages, but it’s been put by as a “treat” book, for a nice long summer weekend. Does anyone else do that? Buy a book you REALLY want, but instead of diving straight into it, put it by for “special”? Please tell me I’m not the only such mad person!

      • Totally! Especially when they’re at a bargain price, and you think, It’ll never be that cheap again! I also love history books, most of which are MASSIVE and which I’ll never get all the way through. Maybe it’s my way of feeling “worthy”, buying books from which I’ll learn something!

  2. I loved the opening of this book – the hair braiding scene you mention was fantastic. But after a while I felt like the ‘race’ issue was being shoved down my throat to the detriment of the actual story.

    • I agree Annabel. My heart is with Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites for the Bailey’s but my head says Americanah will win as Adichie’s writing style is so commanding. Not long to go now. I might be pleasantly surprised 🙂

      • I haven’t read most of the books on the shortlist so I can’t comment across the board but between kent & Adichie Kent would get my vote. However, prize panels often seem to be on drugs as far as I can tell, so who knows what they’ll pull out of the hat!

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