It has taken me ages, but I finally got around to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel, Americanah. It is every bit as good as Half of a Yellow Sun and for this American, much more potent in its subject matter.
The book is set in Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom and follows two young Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love in their teens and then face years of separation as life takes them in different directions and to different continents.
Ifemelu’s story takes up a larger portion of the book. When the university in Nigeria closes down repeatedly for strikes, she goes to Philadelphia to study. Her first years are a struggle, as she struggles to find work and earn enough to pay her living expenses. Over time, however, she forms some connections that lead to work that lead to more connections and more work. Eventually, she starts a blog about race in America from an African perspective. Reading about her experiences finding an audience, getting sponsors, and monitoring comments felt like going into a time capsule. But the observations she makes felt fresh and interesting and often unexpected and challenging (and it would have been even more fresh in 2013).
The book falls down slightly when it comes to Obinze’s story. He ends up going to the UK, where he also struggles to find work and a place to fit in. But we don’t spend nearly as much time with him, even though there’s plenty of drama to be had in his story, both while he is in the UK and after he returns to Nigeria. I felt like Adichie wasn’t that interested in what was happening to him but included his sections to maintain the structure of following both halves of the young couple. Yet even the book’s title focuses on Ifemelu’s side of the experience. Obinze’s sections weren’t quite short enough to feel like little “catch-up” interludes and not long enough to carry the same weight as Ifemelu’s story. And, in the end, I wasn’t as interested in Obinze or in his relationship to Ifemelu as I was in Ifemelu’s journey from Africa to America and back again.
For me, Ifemelu was the heart of the book, and I loved reading about the way America changed her, in both good and bad ways, and about how she perceived the racism in America, as an outsider who must deal with the consequences of it every day.