It’s only March, and already I know this will be the best book I read all year.
The first inkling I had, was that I wanted to linger, to slow time down. Ordinarily, I read books in big bites, devour them. The feel of the words, whole pages, slipping down the back of my throat oddly satisfying. There, full belly!
Then there are books I want to savor. I dip in. I look up. The one gesture immersive; the other, perspective-taking. This was such a book. I found myself pausing repeatedly, not just to digest, but to take it in like a long breath, . . . one, two, three, four . . . to oxygenate, to carry the words into the deepest cells in my body. I wanted it to last, like a bar of chocolate cut into perfect squares–delicious now, but also delicious in its promise of more to come.
Why? What was it about this book?
There are many ways to judge a book, to tell if it will make it to that one shelf in your book case where all your best friends live, but it almost always begins with the story. How good is the narrative arc? How believable are the characters? Do we care what happens to them? And this book delivers in spades.
Americanah is, at its core, a love story–many love stories. It is, first, a story of young love between Ifemelu, the bold and beautiful protagonist of the novel, and her high school mate Obinze. Their love is rooted and historical and full of longing and terrible timing. It is also the story of twenty-something love. That time in our lives when we are experimenting and stepping out and making terrible choices but living big, nonetheless. And finally, it is a love story between Ifemelu and the two countries she calls home–one shiny and new (America) and the other old and eternal (Nigeria).
Adichie tells these stories simply, without clever devices to trick or shock. She also avoids falling prey to the elaborate tangents and endless back stories that weigh down so many novels these days. Her writing is natural, flowing effortlessly from scene to scene, yet restrained, resisting the temptation to say just a little bit more. In fact, I didn’t really notice the writing until I sat down to write this review, which I think is a huge testament to her skill and craft as a writer.
The book is set in contemporary times (thank God!) and often comments on issues such as race, and gender, and the immigrant experience. With all due respect, I am tired of books set during World War II or in the 60s. The politics of this book are current and cutting edge and engage the reader to be thoughtful about the way we act and react in a (supposedly) post-racial world. She challenges us to think about white privilege (in America), but also about classism and regionalism (in Nigeria). She makes subtle (but profound) distinctions between what it means to be an African-American and what it means to be an American-African. She talks beauty, and hair, and fat. She shows us how we canonize the poor (in America) and valorize the nouveau riche bourgeoisie (in Nigeria). She shines a light on the contradictions, the injustices of the world(s) we live in, yet does so with a fondness and humor that is endearing and helps us to stay and listen.
But perhaps the most important reason this book moved me is because it reminds me of home. This book takes me back, transports me, past memory, to the deepest recesses of my limbic brain, to the place where I am. Few books evoke that feeling. Enid Blyton (an Adichie favorite) comes to mind, as do Little Women, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. When I re-read these, I am immediately back in my grandparent’s home, on the veranda in the afternoon quiet, sun casting waffle-shadows through the bars of the window onto the tile floor at my feet.
But this book also evokes another kind of “home.” The kind of home where you “smell of floral perfume, and exhaust fumes, and sweat.” The kind of home where you haggle with the contractor and threaten to not pay him until he re-does the shoddy paint job in your kitchen. The kind of home where everyone is an “aunty.” The kind of home where lunch is always a hot meal. It is not often that I see home in a novel.Then again, it is not often I read a novel written by an Americanah.