Book Review: ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a work of modern art. It’s radical, sophisticated and subversive in all the right ways. And, dammit, there’s just something really sexy about reading an intellectual book and learning new things without it feeling like extra work.

I’ve read ‘Half of a yellow sun’ by Adichie in the past, so I went in with high expectations, which were met and exceeded by this book. It follows two star-crossed lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their upbringing in a middle-class neighbourhood in Nigeria. However their relationship is cut short when Ifemelu emigrates to America to continue her education and Obinze, failing to get a visa, starts a new undocumented life as an illegal immigrant in England instead.

In America, Ifemelu deals with success and failure, finds and ends new relationships and eventually gets a fellowship at Princeton. For the first time, she becomes aware of race as a concept, and how differently she is treated because of her skin. She starts to document her observations in the form of a blog about race, which quickly brings her newfound fame. However despite all the luxuries of her new life, something pulls her back home, back to the Nigeria she grew up in. When she returns she meets Obinze again, who is now a wealthy, married man. As the two former lovers reunite, old sparks are rekindled and the two are faced with some tough decisions about their futures.

I once heard someone on goodreads refer to this book as a ‘500 page commentary on race’ (it was meant as an insult, I think of it as a positive thing). It’s true that ‘Americanah’ is not subtle at all about the issues of racism it tackles, and very much focuses on Ifemelu’s experience of being black in America. However it doesn’t read like a text book, or a preachy rant, it reads like a very smart, very intellectual novel written by a world-renowned race academic. As Ifemelu herself says in the book, racism is not a subtle thing, and should not be dealt with in a subtle way. As it does for all African Americans, race is something that affects every aspect of the protagonist’s life, and therefore seeps into every part of her narrative. The point of the novel is to illuminate the pervasive, omnipresent shadow that race is for those living in the Western world, and also how race is not a fixed category as its definition is tied to shifting social values.

‘Americanah’ is not just another ‘book about race’. It’s brutally honest, heartbreaking and also fiercely hopeful. It analyses the very real, very damaging consequences that race can have, from racial stereotyping, to lack of representation, to alienation and loss of identity. It’s a book about overcoming hardship and succeeding in a country that is against you purely on the basis of your appearance. It’s about miscommunication, a lack of understanding, a lack of willingness to learn. It’s a story about love in many different forms and, ultimately, two people finding each other again.

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Review: ‘Wonder’ by R.J Palacio (guest post)

Anyone who’s filled with as much self-doubt as I am will surely understand what I mean when I say that every now and then, you come across a book that makes you resolve to be a better person. Wonder by R. J. Palacio is absolutely one of those books. Touching, engaging and uplifting, it offered everything I wanted from a story and then some: a whole host of characters; conflict that felt only too realistic; a conclusion so poignant I’m still drying my eyes and an abundance of youthful, untamed delight.

Trying to summarise a book that’s comparable in style only to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not easy, but I’ll give it a go. The premise is simple: August Pullman has a genetic condition that makes him look different to other ten-year-olds. Not just a bit different, like a cleft lip or a weird birthmark, but really, truly, stop-in-the-street-and-stare, makes-small-children-run-away-screaming different. Up until the point where the story starts, he has led a sheltered life. If you can call undergoing surgery every few months, wearing a space helmet every time he goes outside and being home schooled by understandably overprotective parents sheltered, that is. But things are about to change, because Auggie is starting middle school. (Whatever that is. Damn these Americans and their confusing educational systems.) Here, he – and the reader – will meet a variety of his peers and undertake a Bildungsroman-esque journey towards all kinds of acceptance.

I could gush about all the things that are great about Wonder for at least thirty pages. Auggie’s emotions, his dark humour, all the ups and downs…it all feels so real, and that’s what makes the story so gripping. I was rooting for him right from the first page, and I found it surprisingly easy to put myself in his shoes thanks to Palacio’s honest, conversational style. What was even more surprising is that I actually engaged more with Auggie, a ten-year-old boy whose life is dominated by a physical distortion, than I did with, for example, his older sister Olivia.

Via is closer to my age than her brother; her typical-teenage-girl problems are certainly more familiar to me than the issues our protagonist faces. Yet, during Via’s sections of the book, I found myself skimming the text, wondering when it was time to get back to the proper story. Yes, I cared about her, and about Jack, and Summer, and Miranda, and even Justin, but these characters’ musings felt like mere interruptions. It’s only now, on reflection, that I am beginning to question whether the asides about Jack’s poverty, Miranda’s home life and so on had some deeper meaning. Yes, these children look completely normal from the outside, but as the saying goes, everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Auggie’s classmates might not carry their burdens on their faces like he does, but they are all equally scarred in one way or another: by their past; by their family; by their friends. If the multiple narratives aren’t there to move the plot along, then perhaps they are intended to remind us that Mr. Browne’s precepts apply to everyone, whether their problems are visible or not. “When given the choice between being right and being kind,” Palacio is telling us, “always choose kind”.

I’ve seen some reviews that use words like ‘ableist’ in relation to the story’s tear-jerking happy ending. Some readers suggest that Auggie is awarded the Henry Ward Beecher medal simply for being deformed, and is therefore subject to positive discrimination. I disagree. Auggie earns his standing ovation for showing empathy, wisdom and kindness in the face of adversity, just like Via and Justin do when they face their demons in order to play the leads in their high school production. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a physical condition, a broken family, the death of a loved one…we are wonderful not in spite of but because of our struggles, and this deserves recognition. Who knows what these characters would be like had they led seemingly idyllic lives like Julian? Who’s to say that they wouldn’t be the ones putting mean notes in other pupils’ lockers? I think Palacio is telling us to embrace our differences, even the ones that make people point and laugh. Even the ones that provoke attacks from the uninformed. Even the ones that, as in my case, make strangers stop in the street and say, “Gosh, you’re tall!”.

These are the things that shape us into the remarkable human beings that we are.

 

This guest post was written by a good friend of mine, Rosie, who runs her own book blog ‘an improbable truth‘. Check it out for more excellent book reviews!