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Reviews

Americanah

Andrew Tate

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Fourth Estate, 477pp

'And so she had the dizzying sensation of falling, falling into the new person she had become, falling into the strange familiar'. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's third novel, is a story of the twinned longing for and resentment of the 'strange familiar' of home. Is belonging to be found within a particular set of national boundaries or in the lives of those we love? As a smart, mildly rebellious teenager growing up in 1990s Lagos, Ifemelu and her intense, American literature loving boyfriend, Obinze, yearn for the possibilities of another life, one not circumscribed by family expectation or the limits of gender. Obinze, in particular, is infatuated with the idea of life in the USA; his 'longing' assumes 'a minor mystical quality and America became where he was destined to be'. The two are separated by circumstance and both make long journeys away from their country of birth but not to the places that they necessarily hoped or expected to be. This is not much of a spoiler: the narrative is primarily told in a kind of telescopic retrospect with Ifemelu at the end of a long American adventure, successful and (almost) famous, resolved to return to Nigeria.

Americanah is a highly mobile novel that moves easily between Lagos, London, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven and Princeton. Adichie writes about a peculiarly contemporary form of displacement. Ifemelu and Obinze are not driven from their nation by war, ethnic oppression or religious conflict. Their exile is chosen but not altogether free, marked by yearning and melancholy, a training 'from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else'. At a dinner party in London, Obinze, a bright graduate working for an iniquitously low wage under a borrowed name, is aware that his well meaning, liberal English friends would sympathize with the flight from 'the kind of poverty that crushed human souls but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness'. Adiche's protagonists, lovers separated by contingency rather than tragedy, are 'merely hungry for choice and certainty'. Although Americanah is focalized via a rather conventional frustrated romantic relationship, it is alert to the harsh realities of modern life. Is identity a matter of choice? And, if so, is everybody really free to choose who they'd like to become? Obinze's time in London is marked by fear as well as small acts of kindness. He experiences the resentment of those who don't want him in their country and, as a new millennium finds its feet, he is aware that 'the wind blowing across the British Isles' is 'odorous with fear of asylum seekers' which 'infects everybody with the panic of everyday doom'. The UK section of the novel is reminiscent of Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners, one of the first novels to narrate the alienating experience of the Windrush generation. And, as with Selvon's groundbreaking piece of fiction, Americanah does not exactly make me proud to be British. Indeed, Adichie's novel is prescient about the seductive qualities of those who preach suspicion or outright resentment of human beings who happen to be born in another country. Nostalgia for a lost past is a destructive, greedy fiction but not an uncommon one, particularly not in times of economic hardship. 'It had to be comforting this denial of history,' Obinze recognizes. Selvon and Adichie would make fine required reading at A Level because, in their complex ways, they engage with the legacies of empire. The dangers of cultural amnesia are widely signalled in our current political malaise. Writers like Adichie are good at reminding us why the rejection of our shared past - especially the bits that we'd most like to forget - is so dangerous.

The novel has formal elements that are specific to our historical moment, particularly in how it draws on recent modes of communication. Entries from Ifemelu's anonymous blog, 'Raceteenth', punctuate a number of the later chapters: her witty, salutary reflections on race hint at other possibilities for this novel. She wrestles with the question of identity in ways that are likely to challenge liberal optimists who believe that the burden of racism is over. 'In America, you don't get to decide what race you are', she observes, though such reflections are apparently forbidden in her adopted country because 'in America everything is fine and everyone is the same'. These excursions into her perceptive take on the politics of the everyday might, in the hands of a lesser writer, be dry and didactic but in Americanah they work well. In fact, I rather wish that Adichie had abandoned the omniscient, third-person narration altogether and allowed her compelling characters to tell their own stories.

Adichie rarely, if ever, gives precise historical dates but Ifemelu, during her final years in the US, observes the rise of Barack Obama with giddy anticipation. And the novel, despite its resistance to nostalgia of a political kind, evokes the enthusiasm and extraordinary endeavour of the 2008 election. Ifemelu's boyfriend, Blaine, an ethically engaged Yale professor, speaks to a gathering of his friends with a rhetorical fervour that is reminiscent of the 44th President: 'We prove that the world can be like this room. It can be a safe and equal space for everyone. We just need to dismantle the walls of oppression'. It is a sermonic moment but though Adichie is acutely aware of the ironic distance between desire and reality, the novel doesn't mock such aspirations. Americanah is a rich and sharp exploration of the politics of 21st-century selfhood, a novel neither blind to compromise and failure nor dulled by the temptations of easy cynicism.