'Americanah' review

Immediately prior to the moment we have waited 439 pages for, the beginning of the final act in an epic love story spanning three continents and thirteen years, Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter is described by Americanah’s protagonist Ifemelu as ‘real literature, the kind of human story that people will read in two hundred years.’ The novel is just one small part of the history that Ifemelu shares with Obinze, but its mention finally tips the two of them over the edge, ushers in the endgame.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a shining example of a contemporary literature that crosses oceans and continents in the same easy manner with which characters in Dickens and Joyce crossed London and Dublin streets. In prose that is unflashy but relentlessly absorbing, Adichie evokes Ivy League campuses and Islington dinner parties with the same authenticity as her sensual evocations of Lagos: ‘floral perfumes… exhaust fumes and sweat’. Leaving comfortable lives in Nigeria’s fast-expanding upper middle class, Ifemelu and Obinze find themselves cut adrift in their respective new worlds. Adichie captures the heart of these uncertain migratory lives, layering scores of individual anecdotes and a myriad of secondary characters, including lovers who come and go, building a hollow sense of alienation even as the characters ostensibly integrate. Sharp social commentary and acute emotional honesty underpin a narrative that lays bear the joys, sorrows and small triumphs of exile and the nuanced understandings gained by people transitioning between the multiple phases of the migrant experience.

Published in 2013, Americanah wears its political contexts lightly, but Ifemelu and her friends celebrate the Obama moment, rooting the novel in a time that already feels like history. In pre-Brexit Britain, references to the far-less celebrated tenure of David Blunkett as Home Secretary remind that the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants was not simply a nasty Tory invention.

Of course, like all great literature, Americanah is concerned with themes. First among these is race. Ifelmelu’s fictional blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black is a vehicle for Adichie’s excoriating analysis. Like everything else in the novel, the blog is clever and funny and heartrendingly tragic all at once. Americanah is equally insightful and affecting on subjects ranging from sex and class to the semiotics of hair. Ultimately, however, it is the emotional rollercoaster of the story – two young people struggling to make sense of themselves, each other and the world, against the panoramic backdrop of our tumultuous times – that make it not only a ‘Book of the Month’, but ‘real literature, the kind of human story that people will read in two hundred years.’

Dylan Moore is the author of Driving Home Both Ways (Parthian) and Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19. He will appear at Hay Festival Cartagena, alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, this weekend. 

Americanah is Hay Festival Book of the Month for January. Find out more here.