by Janet Maslin
And “Americanah” comes dangerously close to the “exaggerated histrionics” and “improbable plots” that she ascribes to Nigerian, or Nollywood, films.
When readers of “Americanah” first meet its Nigerian-born heroine, Ifemelu, she has come a long way in life. She holds a fellowship at Princeton. She is “the absolute love of my life” to the man she is dating, a black American named Blaine, who teaches at Yale. She writes a blog about racial issues that features her “irreverent, hectoring, funny and thought-provoking voice,” as one online admirer puts it, though readers of “Americanah” may find it more leaden. And she has an old flame in Nigeria, Obinze, who has never gotten over her.
But Ifemelu is dissatisfied. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the immensely talented author of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” uses everyday issues to highlight her heroine’s resentments. However prestigious her career at Princeton, Ifemelu must travel to less-elite Trenton to have her hair braided — and she cares about hair so much that it is arguably this book’s second-biggest focal point. The complex balance of rational and national identities is its first and foremost concern.
At the Trenton salon, she is tended to by women from Mali and Senegal with whom she is perhaps supposed to feel a Pan-African kinship. But Ifemelu, like Ms. Adichie, bristles at facile generalizations. And she knows as much about splitting hair as she does about styling it. Though “Americanah” takes the shape of a long, star-crossed love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, it is most memorable for its fine-tuned, scathing observations about worldly Nigerians and the ways they create new identities out of pretension and aspiration.
“Half of a Yellow Sun” was just as fine-tuned. But it played out against the backdrop of the Biafran war, with a stark clarity that automatically gave it gravitas. “Americanah” is less authoritative, because its stakes are lower and because Ifemelu’s sharp opinions are not accompanied by a strong, aggressive personality. She drifts passively through a long, winding story. And “Americanah” comes dangerously close to the “exaggerated histrionics” and “improbable plots” that she ascribes to Nigerian, or Nollywood, films.
Once it establishes what Ifemelu’s life in America has become, “Americanah” flashes back to the story of how she left her homeland. And Ms. Adichie’s greatest writerly strength lies in the acuity of her descriptions. She writes of a Lagos filled with climbers, debating the merits of American affectations versus English ones for their children, gravitating to those who hold enough power to dispense favors. Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju enjoys a cozy setup as a general’s pampered mistress until she loses his protection and must flee to America for her life.
We hear Nigerian students acquiring snippets of American culture, arguing about pronunciation (should the first syllable of schedule sound like sked or shed?) and declaring their tastes in fiction. Naturally, Ms. Adichie has a withering eye for the kind of person who cares only about a book’s quota of big words.
And we see the economic consequences of brooking authority: Ifemelu’s father is fired for refusing to call his female boss “Mummy,” no matter how absurd that demand sounds. But even as her parents’ fortunes decline, Ifemelu finds a seemingly ecstatic bond with Obinze. She calls him “Ceiling” because when they make love, she is too transported to see the ceiling before her eyes.
But Ifemelu is not cut out for contentment. “Sometimes she worried that she was too happy,” the book says of these early, lovestruck days. “She would sink into moodiness, and snap at Obinze, or be distant. And her joy would become a restless thing, flapping its wings inside her, as though looking for an opening to fly away.”
Such flapping does not really endear Ifemelu to anybody, although she has a seemingly irresistible allure for African, American and African-American men. But when frustration with the Nigerian educational system and its campus strikes prompts her to go overseas, the book gets a hefty new infusion of topics for cultural critique. She struggles hard to make her way, and the book effectively dramatizes her economic plight; at one point she is all but driven to prostitution. But even in her bleakest moments, Ifemelu is astute about the new attitudes she encounters. “America’s tribalisms — race, ideology and region — became clear,” Ms. Adichie writes. “And she was consoled by her new knowledge.”
The blog bursts out of her, terrible name and all. It is called “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” And the blog, like this book, is unafraid to take on taboo subjects, from the misguided reverence that some American blacks may hold for Mother Africa to the aforementioned obsession with how black women’s hair ought to be treated. Ifemelu puts herself through all sorts of chemical misery, watches a white girl come into a salon wanting Bo Derek’s cornrows, discovers that hair and employability are related, and even ponders the meaning of the Obamas’ sartorial and tonsorial styles.
More dramatically, “Americanah” takes Obinze to London, where he does the lowest menial work, tries to enter into a sham marriage to an Englishwoman and watches Nigerian friends show off in ridiculously upscale British ways. One of the book’s most funnily barbed moments involves “the voodoo of fine dining” to which Obinze is subjected by a friend’s largess. (Obinze’s burger arrives in a martini glass, to the sound of his host’s crowing.) But Obinze’s life abroad turns disastrous, and he must go back to Nigeria to find his way.
The first half of “Americanah” (the title refers to the newly Americanized Ifemelu) is tough-minded and clear. But Ms. Adichie disappointingly allows her story to slip to the level of a simple romance, leaving her readers to wonder, not very much, whether Ifemelu and Obinze will be reunited. The plot ultimately feels like an excuse for the venting of opinions — and the opinions carry far more conviction than the storytelling does.
Ms. Adichie displays much keen critical intelligence about how we can unwittingly betray our truest selves. But if she has any real passion for the people in “Americanah,” she’s done far too good a job of keeping it to herself.
Read this article on The New York Times
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