There’s something to offend almost everyone in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Take, for example, this conversational excerpt near the end of the book as Ifemelu (protagonist) is talking with Obinze (with whom she’s had an on-and-off relationship for the better part of two decades) after they’ve both returned to Nigeria:
“…I realized that if I ever have children, I don’t want them to have American childhoods. I don’t want the to say ‘Hi’ to adults. I want them to say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good afternoon.’ I don’t want the to mumble ‘Good’ when somebody says ‘How are you?’ to them. Or to raise five fingers when asked how old they are. I want them to say ‘I’m fine, thank you’ and ‘I’m five years old.’ I don’t want a child who feeds on praise and expects a star for effort and talks back to adults in the name of self-expression.”
Americans could read that and take offense. But fear not; Adichie is an equal opportunity observationalist. Her characters say and write even more scathing comments about Nigerians, English, Black Americans, White Americans, liberals, conservatives, men, women, vegetarians, academics, businessmen, generals, contractors, doctors, hairdressers…you name it.
Adichie’s powers of observation—of the complexities and nuances of daily life and interactions—are wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking and powerfully grounded in the ordinary experiences of her characters.
In many ways it’s a simple, and very old story she’s telling. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again.
But in Adichie’s telling, the story is mostly about the girl. Ifemelu is the main character. She’s the one who goes off to American to study and ends up a well-known blogger and academic. Meanwhile Obinze stays in Nigeria at first, then has a relatively brief and unhappy experience as an undocumented immigrant in England ending with his deportation, before becoming a successful businessman in Lagos. We learn lots about her, less about him.
Americanah is the kind of novel that’s enhanced by internet access. English speakers can look up Igbo phrases that dot the manuscript. Americans can look up the references to varying English towns and London neighborhoods to get a sense of what it means when a character is described as being from Islington or Kensington or Essex, or when Nigerians refer knowingly to Nsukka or Ikoyi or Surulere.
And it’s so thickly filled with layers of meaning and symbolism, that even an outsider can pick up on some of it. For example: early during her 15 year sojourn in the United States, Ifemelu gets a job (illegally, she’s entered on a student visa) and works under someone else’s name. That other person’s name is Ngozi (Igbo for “Blessing”) Okonkwo, both common names. But Ngozi is also Adichie’s middle name, and Okonkwo is the main character in Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart. And Adichie grew up in the house on the University of Nigeria campus in Nsukka that Achebe had previously lived in.
What does it all mean? I don’t know. But I know it means something, and that Americanah is (must be) filled with hundreds of similar “little” details that other, more knowledgeable readers come across with a frisson of delight and awe that here is an author who has captured in words so much of what it is to live a life.
No novel gives the reader a full sense of an entire society or moment in time. But as with Hugo’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame or Dickens’ Great Expectations (to name two examples), Adichie’s Americanah gives the reader an experience of fully realized characters in a comprehensively described world. It’s a joy to read.