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