Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Book Review

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Book Review

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Genre: Fiction, Africa, Contemporary Fiction, Feminism, Literary Fiction
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Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.

MY REVIEW

Americanah was my favourite book of 2019, so much so that I’m still suffering from a book hangover, and I suspect that it will be a long while before I discover its equal/superior. Americanah explores race and immigration… and the best love story that I have read in the longest time. Perhaps the best love story of all-time in literature.

Ifemelu is enterprising, self-assured, pragmatic and bold and her blog posts on race is a blogger’s delight. I can imagine a few readers finding her frustrating, but I find her to be one of the most human, realistic and inspiring female characters I have ever read. Ifemelu is a character we rarely come across in literature. Obinze, on the other hand, is self-contained, introspective and intelligent. It is difficult to not fall in love with him.

Through Ifemelu and Obinze’s respective lives as immigrants in America and the UK, we see the pair struggle to integrate and adjust to life in the West. Though Ifemelu is eventually successful, the thread of longing for their native home, Nigeria, is ever present as well as their yearning for each other.

This could potentially prove to be a difficult read for some readers, especially for a reader whose experiences are so far removed from Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s. To put it in less euphemistic terms, this may be a challenging read for a non-black person. But that is exactly what it is supposed to be, it is exactly what Americanah strives to achieve. Americanah is not a light and breezy novel. It is a novel that forces you to question how race plays an impact in our lives on both macro and micro-levels, whether you’re Black, white, Asian or Hispanic. Which is why I recommend Americanah as essential reading to all. One look at the first review on Goodreads is an example of this, but the frustration of those who’ve replied is a familiar sentiment echoed throughout Americanah that at times is far too overwhelming a burden to bear and lighten. So, be prepared.

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“Racism should never have happened and so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.” Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I was all too aware of this which is why I hesitated to continue after the first ten pages. I had to make sure that I was ready… once I was ready, I took my time to read and reflect. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie draws us in with an intimate touch to her storytelling, we become fully immersed and involved in the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze and find ourselves forging a bond with the pair. Though the pacing stretches slowly, intricately expanding several interconnected threads, it feels right for a novel like Americanah… adjusting to a new life in a different country would realistically be a slow and grueling and dizzying process. I reached such a level of comfort that I didn’t want the book to come to an end. I wanted to continue this journey with these characters for even longer. Thankfully, this is one of the best endings I’ve read in a long time, a satisfying conclusion and a triumphant victory among victories. 

I am ready to read everything Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has ever written and will write.

* * * SPOILER REVIEW * * *

Race and Immigration

Americanah begins with Ifemelu in America, preparing to move back to Nigeria and the bulk of the story focuses on the events leading up to this. Before Ifemelu immigrates to America and Obinze to the UK, Americanah primarily focuses on the relationship between Obinze and Ifemelu. The one other character here that achieves some character focus is Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju who is flashy, daring and materialistic and her son, Dike, full of joy and optimism until he is forced to deal with unexpected racism. Though the nature of Aunty Uju’s scandalous personal life is shocking, you can’t help but think fondly of Aunty Uju whose strong will, determination and pragmatism is easily found in Ifemelu too.  

Life in Nigeria is a life of hustle and a teenager’s longing for the American dream (and of immeasurable wealth) without understanding the realities of obtaining the American dream. In short, Ifemelu, Obinze and their classmates all share a fantastical view of life in the West.

But eventually the reality hits once Ifemelu and Obinze land on American and British soil. They’re no longer two unique individuals with identities rooted in their individual traits… they are now Black. And it becomes difficult to separate their Blackness, they can’t escape it because America and Britain constantly reminds them of the colour of their skin. It’s wholly uncharted territory and ventured into by two vulnerable and unprepared adolescents no less.

We witness Ifemelu and Obinze suffering in their own respective lives, sunk low to desperation and poverty, and struggling to find employment that isn’t menial or degrading. The two eventually find some success, though not the luxurious success they had imagined they would. Ifemelu finds love in a white boyfriend who claims colour blindness (yet somehow has only ever had a black or Asian girlfriend) and understands very little about the complexities of racism. She then finds love in an American-Black boyfriend who understands perhaps too much about race – an all-consuming focus on race.

Somewhere along Ifemelu’s and Obinze’s nostalgia for Nigeria and the constant brush with racism, it suddenly hit me and perhaps has hit other South Asian second-generation immigrants too: that we had a comfortable and sheltered childhood surrounded by our community, we graduated from universities in our multicultural bubbles, and then we left the cocoon and entered the real world – and I mean the world outside healthcare and teaching that I often find my fellow Bangladeshi people living in -, we began working and we found ourselves confronted by the colour of our skin. Perhaps some of you were confronted by your hijab as well. We couldn’t escape the sudden difference. Racism. Prejudice. It’s everywhere. From the lowest point of the sliding scale to the highest. But from all this, all that independence we sought after, we birthed a love for our community, an irreplaceable bond for our people.

Ifemelu and Obinze finally discover their bond to their native land. They had to go through hell and back, misadventures, terrible and incompatible relationships, subconsciously battling for white acceptance and finally becoming weary of it. But they found the light at the end of the tunnel, back to Nigeria and back to each other. Ifemelu is still pestered by the nostalgia of Americanah of newly returned immigrants and can’t imagine for the life of her what exactly they miss, and you can’t blame her.

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“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.” Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu and Obinze

From their very first meeting, you cannot miss Ifemelu and Obinze’s undeniable chemistry. This is a love story. The two are so comfortable and free with each other and yet Ifemelu balks at times, but we can easily empathise with her – after all, how can a relationship be so easy, fun, wonderful, full of love and mutual respect and admiration? It’s scary. I found Ifemelu refreshingly relatable and Obinze effortlessly endearing. It’s easy to see that the two belong together and that you’ll root for them come hell or high water.

“She rested her head against his and felt, for the first time, what she would often feel with him: a self-affection. He made her like herself. With him, she was at ease; her skin felt as though it was her right size.. It seemed so natural, to talk to him about odd things. She had never done that before. The trust, so sudden and yet so complete, and the intimacy, frightened her.. But now she could think only of all the things she yet wanted to tell him, wanted to do with him.” Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Once the two depart for America and the US, they respectively fumble around in relationships with very obviously incompatible love interests. But it makes you wonder that had Obinze and Ifemelu never met each other, if their separate relationships could have worked out better? But the pair were forever in the shadows in their respective and eventually failed relationships, a constant reminder that it would never fit, not truly, not even if mitigated by seemingly relative peace.

Obinze eventually returns to Nigeria and leads a successful life with a beautiful, compliant, traditional and devoted wife. But still, Ifemelu never leaves his mind or his heart. Now, this is shocking for me and totally unprecedented – once Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, I found myself rooting for the pair to get back together. I know, Obinze is married. But, please, Obinze and his wife see the world in such a different way that, despite a marriage of minimal conflict, they can never truly be happy with each other. Ifemelu and Obinze just make sense. I can’t excuse the adultery, but breaking the marriage to be with his childhood sweetheart? It had to happen. Don’t stone me. For a love like that? Sorry, husband, but bye. Wish you luck. Oh my God, let me stop here before the guilt finishes me off.

To sum it up:

Obinze and Ifemelu – the greatest love story I have ever read. Americanah – the best book I read in 2019. 2020 – more Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie books.


Happy new year to you all, may we all read books that make us feel the way Americanah made me feel in 2020. Here’s to reading great books and scrapping the terrible ones that bring no joy.  

What are your thoughts on Americanah and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? What is your favourite Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book? What other books on race would you recommend?

More… how do you feel, as black or Asian person, about race once you left the safety of childhood? In what ways have you noticed racism and prejudice that you hadn’t experienced/witnessed before? How do you approach your own identity, does you race play a role? Let me know in the comments!

Sophia Ismaa

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25 Comments

  1. I didn’t read the spoiler section because I want to read the book but I didn’t know it was a love story! The book certainly sounds like an important and great read. I know they’re adapting it soon for HBO I think. Hopefully they do it justice!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That sounds like an amazing book!

    I loved the first quote ‘Racism should never have happened so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it’ man it’s so true!

    Alhamdullah I’ve never been a victim of direct racism but it’s the paranoia that you can’t walk out of your house without feeling scared that today may be the day when someone says or does something racist to you and you don’t know how you’ll react, I think that’s the most terrifying thing.

    As a child I wasn’t aware of racism and hatred which I think I was lucky to have never expreienced or been aware of but I think that’s also why when I grew up and became more aware of it, it was a huge shock. I didn’t expect it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It really is! I don’t know how much I can recommend it to you because of your age, but I think once you’re out in the working world, this book will be especially relevant – though I hope it no longer has to be.

      Yup! At times, I feel that sometimes some white allies really want to be recognised for reducing racism or it can sometimes border on performative allyship. It’s a tricky area to navigate, but with time and experience, you’ll be able to see who’s genuinely committed to reducing racism and who’s doing it for show and applause.

      The paranoia and fear that you experience is still the direct effect of racism, so you’re vicariously suffering racism. It’s so sad to hear young people are afraid that they could experience racist attacks the moment they leave the house. That’s really upsetting to see. I hope you have support in place?

      I know right! We’re so sheltered because I feel like we grow up deeply entrenched in our communities, sheltered from racism, and when we leave our little nests, we’re confronted by racism and we have no idea what to do either because we weren’t prepared for it. I don’t want to say it won’t happen, but if it does, Insha’Allah, I hope you have the right support and that you can turn to Allah (SWT) in times of trouble. Alhumdulillah, we have Allah (SWT) otherwise it can get very depressing.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Don’t worry about recomending books to me. My friends and I have gotten to a point where we have discovered every colour of the rainbow whether it’s by purpose or accident.
        Point is nothing can phase us at the point lol.

        Alhamudillah, Manchester, or at leaste the part that I live in is pretty diverse… safe I wouldn’t know.

        Apparently 2 stabbings happened in the past year in my area and I didn’t have a clue… I swear Mancunians, we’re crazy that way!

        Alhamdullilah things are fine now but yeah things can be crazy!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m still reluctant as there a few upsetting scenes, please read along with someone who can support you if you do.

          That’s the thing diversity doesn’t mean safety, nor equality. Our country has deep roots in colonialism after all. I’m reading Nesrine Malik’s ‘We Need New Stories’ and she speaks about the free speech conspiracy which has allotted rising mainstream space to the bigoted e.g. Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage, etc. Even Question Time entertains the bigoted. Until our voices are merged into mainstream media and consumption, I don’t think we’ll see ourselves as ‘safe.’ But, hey, we’re Muslims. Insha’Allah, through righteous action and good deeds, we could count ourselves amongst the victorious. We need to hold fast to our communities and Islam.

          I’m quite shocked that you didn’t know about the stabbings! Is that because you were shielded from it or because hardly anyone knew? I know someone who was recently stabbed 12 times (he was attacked by 20 men), and airlifted to the hospital and yet it wasn’t anywhere in the news. It’s crazy that not everything is reported which makes me wonder and worry that knife crime is a lot higher than we think it is.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I think I didn’t know about the stabbings because I’m barely ever in my area. My school is in a completly different part of manchester and although that area is even worse with shootings as well as gang fights I think I’m just blessed alhamdullah to be at the right place at the right time I guess.

            I’ve just gotten to a point in life where I just wanna sit down with anyone who calls us terrorists and say ‘Okay, so we’re all terrorists, what’s your solution? Kill 1.4 billion people?’

            If I’m being honest to my generation, the Islamaphobia is being taken as a joke. Yes, it’s a very serious thing but we just find it hilarious what the media assumes of us and how they always manage to butcher our names on National TV. I mean if you’re gonna calls us out, do it right!

            If there’s one thing I would never change about myself it’s my religion. I love it and anyone who says otherwise is entitled to their own opinion but I just believe they didn’t get the chance to see the true Islam.

            America’s got shootings, the UK’s got Knife Crime… The Arab countries have unfair justice systems and/or war… The world is messed up…

            Like

            1. Subhana’Allah, I don’t know whether to say that’s good or bad. How is knife crime like in Manchester? This is one of the few times I’ve heard it being really close to someone’s school. In London, there are certain areas that are more affected like Camden. There was one that happened right behind my workplace, and it was really sad because the young boy was trying to prevent the fight from happening. 🙁

              They just want us out of their country – some of them, that is. A lot of their reasoning is misguided as well. It’s like when you’re losing an argument not because you’re wrong, but because the other person is too stupid to comprehend that they’re wrong. 😅

              Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from. But do you think humour is being wielded as a defence mechanism here? Islamophobia can feel very isolating depending on where you are. I remember being at a book club where I was the only POC there, and when I mentioned that I’m Muslim, they looked terrified. Another time I started a new job and when I told them I’m Muslim, bearing this in mind this was at a ‘liberal’ and leading and theatre company, and I saw the fear in their eyes. It really hit me once I entered my 20’s how prevalent islamophobia is. Other than that, I completely agree. Our religion is beautiful, why should I feel ashamed in any way of being Muslim?!

              I’ve finished reading a book on essays written by female Arab journalists reporting on the ground in Arab countries, Subhana’Allah, I learnt a lot.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Islamaphobia has always been an issue since the time of the prophet, it’s something we’re just gonna have to keep fighting against but it’s nothing new.

                I went though a stage where I was terrified of being the only Muslim, now not so much, I’m more concerned on my education and proving everyone wrong to worry about being the only Muslimah to be honest.

                Knife Crime in Manchester… does having a speech about the dangers of knives, gangs and drugs sound like an answer?
                I swear we’ve been hearing that speech for 3 weeks now it’s not even funny anymore…

                Then again, the area my school is in is a very dangerous area and we have consistent gang issues etc but alhamduallah I don’t think anyone from my school has been directly affected.

                Like

  3. I actually don’t read book reviews, but because I saw the name was Nigerian I decided to do so lol. Nonetheless, I loved the first two quotes you put in from the book, and you have a well rounded overview of the book, which you can’t ignore.

    If you decide to read more of Chimamanda like you said, I’ll defo read more (if you review them). But for now, thank you for being my first book review read, and have a happy new year 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I knew you would love this book!! It’s simply amazing. And you did a fantastic job of summing of every point that makes this book special. I suggest “Purple Hibiscus” next. It’s YA. But not sappy, forgettable YA. It is Adichie after all. It’s deep.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have Half of Yellow Sun I believe, but not a copy of Purple Hibiscus. I remember Adichie spoke about it in an interview, an American had stereotyped the father in PH as what he expected of all African men to which she retorted that she’s seen American Psycho, but she doesn’t assume that every white American male is a psychopath… ha! Only Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can make me read YA, I’ve been quite hesitant to read YA because of its, at times, forgettable element, but I think black and Asian authors have a way of reinventing YA that’s unparalleled. They’re bringing much needed life to the genre.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I plan to read more of her books this year. She is a phenomenal writer. Oh, wow! I didn’t know that! Love her response. And I feel the same about YA. I love Morgan Matson but her books are just… fluff. There’s nothing deep to them.

        Like

        1. You know what, I’m going to join in on that and make it a goal to read every book she has ever written this year.

          That’s why I’ve never read Matson’s books, it’s just not for me, but I completely understand why people love her books because they’re just light, good fun and we all need that!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m going to read this as soon as I can get hold of a copy, ‘Half a Yellow Sun’ and ‘Purple Hibiscus’ are both wonderful novels. They’re ones that I’d read again… and you can’t get a better recommendation than that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun and I think I might push it up my TBR a little higher seeing as I absolutely loved Americanah. I know that Purple Hibiscus explores domestic abuse, so I’ll save that for a time when I feel *prepared* to read it. I should have also stated that Americanah does contain some scenes that may be considered triggering, so please be prepared. Thank you for the recommendations! ☺️

      Like

    1. I absolutely loved We Should All Be Feminists, I hadn’t known that it was a Ted talk until long after I had read it. I have a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun, and I’m making it a priority read for this year. And thank you! 🙂

      Like

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