In an early scene in “Americanah,” the protagonist, Ifemelu, questions her boyfriend’s taste in literature. Brett, an academic, favors “novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.”
“Americanah” is not that kind of novel; it is of a decidedly higher order. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author, most recently, of the Orange Prize-winning “Half of a Yellow Sun,” has written a scintillating, funny, and heartfelt novel, not least because of Ifemelu, a Nigerian transplant whose 13-year tenure as a resident of the United States has come to an end. She is a complex and unforgettable character.
She is also a knife-wielding maniac, at least when it comes to social commentary. Ifemelu channels her powers into an anonymous blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” in which she dissects everything from white guys with dreadlocks to the salubrious effect of Michelle Obama’s skin tone on the president’s popularity with women from African and Caribbean nations.
The narrative jumps back and forth among Ifemelu’s past and present — and her blog posts — revealing how the daughter of a professional couple leaves A ROILING LAGOS IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE AND becomes a writer and Princeton fellow who then returns to a homeland whose shortcomings drove her away. A smaller portion of the narrative is told from the perspective of Ifemelu’s first love, Obinze, whose attempt to leave Nigeria AND GO TO ENGLAND has outlandish results. The journeys of these characters, their brush-ups with RACE, class, politics, literature, family ON THREE CONTINENTS result in a cerebral and utterly transfixing epic.
One hesitates to call it wonderful, however — not because it isn’t, but because the American propensity for empty superlatives is one of Ifemelu’s bugbears. She notices when a white character describes every black woman she sees as beautiful; she cringes when some college girls remark that the “Internet is totally going to change the world.” One also hesitates to describe her enthusiasm for the novel as excitement. “[Americans] overused the word ‘excited,’ ” Ifemelu observes. “[A] professor excited about a new book, a student excited about a class, a politician on TV excited about a law; it was altogether too much excitement.”
Ifemelu’s voice wasn’t always quite so strong. Upon her first encounter with Obinze when they are teenagers, she worries she’s too brash, accustomed as she is to “sharpening her words” and “watching for terror in the eyes of boys.” When she comes to America to complete her college education, that sharpness leaves her and is replaced with clinical depression.
The sections of the book detailing Ifemelu’s struggles in her adopted home are the book’s most affecting. She cannot find work, which presents some terrible obstacles, but not all of her problems can be solved by money. More troubling are the Americans themselves, eager to place her into narrow categories and thus mystified by her bearing and diction — a mystification that often manifests in racist remarks. “You better not kill my dog with voodoo,” a roommate tells her. “You are funny! I love how sassy you are!” says another.
Among its many strengths, “Americanah” is superlative at making clear just how isolating it can be to live far away from home. Ifemelu is not the only character endangered by the immigrant experience. Her aunt, Uju, a practicing physician in Nigeria, must be re-educated in the American system — a cakewalk compared with trying to fit into the all-white Massachusetts neighborhood in which she completes her residency. Obinze moves to England only to face a political climate unfavorable to immigrants.
Ifemelu manages to find some solace in literature. As she reads, “America’s mythologies began to take on meaning. America’s tribalisms — race, ideology, and religion — became clear. And she was consoled by her new knowledge.”
Eventually Ifemelu finds community in fellow immigrants, in a family for whom she works as a nanny, and eventually, in an American boyfriend. But ultimately, her new homeland falls short. She finds ours a puzzling country, one that complicates questions of identity even for those born here. It proves far more vexing, of course, for those who aren’t. As one of Ifemelu’s Nigerian friends puts it, “I didn’t even know I was supposed to have issues until I came to America.”