Shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the story of Ifemelu and her boyfriend Obinze who fall in love as teenagers in Lagos. During university strikes, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to pursue her postgraduate studies in the United States. Meanwhile, Obinze has moved to England after graduating and is working in Essex using a false identity while attempting to secure a visa through an arranged marriage. The story follows the separate paths they take on different continents before they are reunited back in Lagos many years later.
Adichie said in an interview with Goodreads that “In Nigeria race is not a conscious and present means of self-identification. Ethnicity is. Religion is. But not race.” This is more or less the conclusion that Ifemelu arrives at when she moves to the United States. She starts writing an anonymous blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) By a Non-American Black about her life there. However, Ifemelu doesn’t just experience culture shock in a foreign country – her eventual return to Nigeria is equally disorientating for her and Adichie presents an intriguing portrait of Lagos through the eyes of a former resident who has spent a long time away.
Although the blogging aspect of the story was occasionally long-winded, the in-depth and intricate explorations of contemporary race and identity politics were thoughtfully written. It is easy to be confrontational when discussing such topics but Adichie tackles these challenging issues in an honest and engaging way without being heavy-handed. Moreover, the story doesn’t get lost in detailed social commentary. The characters have real depth, particularly Ifemelu, and Adichie’s story-telling is consistently assured and perceptive.
‘Americanah’ is an impressive, complex and brilliantly observed novel about identity, immigration, race and love. While ‘The Lowland‘ by Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Burial Rites‘ by Hannah Kent are both beautifully written and are very strong contenders for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, I think ‘Americanah’ and ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tartt are the books on the shortlist which I have enjoyed reading the most. Adichie won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007 for her second novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and she may well win a second time for ‘Americanah’.