A version of this review first appeared in The Australian newspaper. You can read it here:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel offers an unvarnished look at contemporary race and inter-cultural relations. It uncovers the less-told narrative of the compromises made by some émigrés, who are not fleeing dire circumstances in their home country, but leave anyway, certain that life for them will be better in the West.
Ifemelu and Obinze are two young Nigerians, in love and aspiring to create a future together. But everyday political and economic uncertainties in Nigeria begin to take a toll. Strikes at their university for example mean classes stop abruptly and you can never be sure for how long. Leaving the country to pursue opportunities elsewhere becomes imperative. Ifemelu moves to the US for postgraduate study. The plan is Obinze will follow her, but fate leads him to London instead and their connection is eventually severed. Before either of them leave, his mother sadly observes that “Nigeria is chasing away its best resources.”
When Ifemelu first arrives in Flatlands, Brooklyn, she is struck by how “disappointingly matte” the landscape is. She had imagined that even ordinary things in America would be glossy. In time her world becomes one where interactions that could have been unremarkable, suddenly become encumbered with identity. Simply saying how hot it is can elicit the response “You’re hot? But you’re from Africa!”. She must explain to her boyfriend, Curt, why magazines like Essence that target black women exist. What’s a girl to do when other publications advise to “pinch your cheeks for colour”? At university she joins the African Students Association because she needs a haven where “she…[does] not have to explain herself”. Eventually Ifemelu starts a provocative race relations blog. Her personal experiences and the ensuing introspection are its content. In one post she postulates that one of the reasons dark skinned women like Barack Obama is because he has a dark skinned wife, a refreshing change from the mainly light skinned black women that you see in mainstream media. In another post about hair she says that her afro is not a political statement (“No, I’m not a…poet…or earth mother”), she has simply stopped using carcinogenic hair straightening chemicals.
But droll musings on an anonymous online forum do not really change how challenging life for an immigrant like her can be. She must attend one job interview after another even to find casual work. At one point Ifemelu retreats from the world for too long, no longer going to class, “her days…stilled by silence and snow”. When her friend Ginika suggests that she may be suffering from depression, she finds this difficult to accept. It is not vocabulary she grew up with. “Depression was what happened to Americans…”
Halfway through the novel we are in London where Obinze is facing obstacles of his own. As he cleans toilets in an office building one evening, he recalls with irony the jokes in Nigeria about how some people went overseas and ended up as toilet cleaners. He acknowledges that he is “soft”, he grew up quite comfortable, and some might find it difficult to understand that people like him leave their home country just to escape “the ominous lethargy of choicelessness”.
One of this novel’s striking features is how it covers issues that may not be discussed openly, but are relevant in many lives today. There are people whose intimate relationships are burdened because one person does not have a green card, can’t find a regular job and may have to leave the country. Reluctantly adjusting your full name for the discomfiting reason of making it easier to pronounce by locals in the country you move to – Obinze’s workmate Duerdinhito has resorted to calling himself “Dee” for this reason. At the novel’s opening we are privy to the romanticism with which Ifemelu regards returning back to her country of birth, an expression of that desire to feel anchored somewhere.
It goes without saying that this novel is thought-provoking too. One man’s response to Ifemelu and her blog is: “race is totally over-hyped these days…it’s all about class now, the haves and the have-nots.” Throughout the story you are also always wondering whether she and Obinze will reunite, and there are humorous incidents scattered along the way, like when she chooses to return to Nigeria but then starts complaining about the pollution. “I can’t breathe!” her friend Ranyinudo mocks, mimicking her. “Haba! Americanah!”. That word, especially created to denote those who do decide to return home.