'Americanah': A Nigerian novelist writes like a dream

Despite its flaws, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel of Africans in New Jersey overflows with keen observations and insights


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'Americanah" is a hearty, overcooked novel about race and culture. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes like a dream, but the narrative, stretched to the point of sluggishness, doesn't measure up.

This is the story of Ifemelu and Obindze, lovers in Nigeria who drift apart in professional careers that mirror continental divides. Born poor, the gifted Ifemelu makes it to America on the strength of a college scholarship and begins writing a blog about race called "Raceteenth."


"AMERICANAH"

By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf ($26.95).


Obindze, more confident but less purposeful than Ifemelu, can't join her in the U.S.; after 9/11, immigration became an obstacle to Nigerians hankering for America, so he instead goes to London, where he begins to make shadowy money. Obindze returns to Nigeria and, thanks to political connections available in the new democracy, launches a lucrative career in Lagos real estate. Lagos effectively becomes a character in Ms. Adichie's affectionate, overwrought book.

Among other locales Ms. Adichie deftly evokes in her first novel in seven years: Princeton, the New Jersey grove of academe that allows Ifemelu to nurse her blog, and Trenton, the funkier city nearby where she goes to get her hair braided. The salon where Ifemelu interacts with other African immigrants becomes a symbol of her cultural and geographical unease. But it also feels like a trope.

Ms. Adichie is a precise observer, and her reading of cultural nuance is acute. Early in her American sojourn, Ifemelu stays with Aunty Uju in Brooklyn:

"At the grocery store, Aunty Uju never bought what she needed; instead she bought what was on sale and made herself need it," Ms. Adichie writes, her viewpoint Ifemelu's. "She would take the colorful flier at the entrance of Key Food, and go looking for the sale items, aisle after aisle, while Ifemelu wheeled the cart and Dike walked along.

" 'Mummy, I don't like that. Get the blue one,' Dike said, as Aunty Uju put cartons of cereal in the cart.

" 'It's buy one, get one free,' Aunty Uju said."

Structurally, however, the novel is flawed. While Ifemelu is a worthy heroine, her character -- skillfully developed and rounded -- feels out of balance. Ms. Adichie pairs her with lovers other than Obindze, but Curt, a golden white boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and Blaine, the reserved, overly proper black academic, seem sketchy, almost schematic. Designed to illustrate Ifemelu's emotional growth and her unwavering love for Obindze, they never quite come into their own. At the same time, their turns go on too long, making the denouement feel contrived, even rushed.

Still, there are delicious moments like this description of Curt:

" 'Do you like that? Do you enjoy me?' he asked often. And she said yes, which was true, but she sensed that he did not always believe her ... There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing."

So despite its flaws, "Americanah" is intellectually stimulating. It also makes you want to try Nigerian cuisine -- and to visit Lagos. Another key motif is Barack Obama, whose candidacy and election in 2008 Ms. Adichie obliquely suggests, make notions of race and racism in America even more complicated and ambiguous.

While the characters of "Americanah" aren't defined enough to maintain this critic's interest, Ms. Adichie's insights can snap you to attention. "My ex-boyfriends and I spent a lot of time explaining," Ifemelu tells Obindze as they find each other yet again. "I sometimes wondered whether we would even have anything at all to say to each other if we were from the same place."

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Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News and author of "Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories" (carlo.wolff@gmail.com).


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