One sentence plot
Ifemelu comes of age first in Nigeria, then again in America, where she starts blogging about her experiences and observations of race in America from the perspective of the ‘Non-American Black’.
Americanah is a fascinating book in all sorts of ways, though somehow I feel, as a white British person, not absolutely qualified to review it. Or at least, I’d love to incorporate the perspectives of people of various races living in America and Nigeria. This is a book with a lot to say about race, identity and racism, specifically the difference in experience between African Americans and ‘Non-American Blacks’, told through the eyes (and occasional blogs) of our charming protagonist, Ifemelu and to a lesser extent, her high school sweetheart, Obinze. I lack the expertise or personal experience to comment on the accuracy of how it’s presented here, but I’ve never personally seen the subject addressed so thoughtfully. This book is a wonderful combination of delightful characters with lovely narrative voices, a compelling plot, and presents a very interesting insight into some of the nuances of race, culture, and lifestyle in America and Nigeria.
The book jumps around in chronology, but essentially Ifemelu and Obinze grow up happily in Nigeria, with a fascination for America and the UK. With political unrest and university faculty strikes impeding their lives, Ifemelu moves to the US to complete her education, Obinze to the UK afterwards. The book is mostly about the cultural differences they experience, and how they relate to white Americans, African Americans, African expats (including their own family members) and African people who lived abroad and returned to the countries of their birth. And how these are tied up with class and personal identity. This is a complex subject and the author does a beautiful job of weaving it into a charming narrative that isn’t preachy or lecture-y but it still interesting and very informative. I loved both Ifmelu and Obinze as characters. They are perceptive, witty, likable, multi-dimensional and speak their minds. I also really enjoyed the supporting cast of stereotypes and those who contravene them. And I found both the race/social commentary and the descriptions of life in these different places to be fascinating. I know I’m going on about all the worthy issues, but they don’t overwhelm the plot, which skips along and had me hooked. I didn’t really want to go out while reading this book.
So why am I not giving Americanah a perfect 5 rating? Because it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. Somehow about three quarters of the way through (just about where Ifemelu moves back to Nigeria), the author seems to get distracted with all the social/race commentary and forgets that this isn’t Ifemelu’s observational blog – it’s a novel, a format that comes with certain plot expectations. So what I had grown to trust as a brilliant story sort of lost its momentum and trickled to the end in a dull-ish anticlimax. It left me feeling dissatisfied and disappointed that the author had diminished her sparkling protagonist into a pedestrian love interest. I like a good love story but it felt like Ifemelu somehow was more than just that, that she deserved more from her author.
But despite the ending, this is a book that feels important, and I loved reading it.
The verdict: 4/5 shoes