The world said goodbye to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in March, but the towering man of letters survives through works such as his classic novel Things Fall Apart and the many writers he inspired. One of those, Achebe’s 35-year-old compatriot Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, reminds us just how worthy an heir she is, with her big, masterful new book, Americanah.
Adichie’s first novel in seven years, Americanah tells of two Nigerian lovers trying to reconnect after being parted for many years. But don’t let that description fool you—this is a clear-eyed look at the reality of life and relationships in a turbulent, globalized world.
The plot is nuanced, but here’s the gist: Ifemelu, a self-possessed, bookish girl, and Obinze, the easy, cool son of an academic, fall in love as teens in Lagos. But faculty strikes at Ifemelu’s university force her abroad to pursue her studies in the US. She eventually thrives and starts a provocative blog called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black. Meanwhile, Obinze, who planned to follow her but was denied a visa, ends up in London. Years later, the two are about to meet again in Nigeria. But after all that time and distance, can anything be the same?
A 2008 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner who splits her time between Nigeria and Columbia, Maryland, Adichie is uniquely positioned to comment on America’s issues surrounding race, class, and politics, and she does so unflinchingly. Ifemelu muses on a white woman getting braids at a black hair salon in Trenton: “She recognized in [her] the nationalism of liberal Americans who copiously criticized America but did not like you to do so; they expected you to be silent and grateful, and always reminded you of how much better than wherever you had come from America was.”
Americanah also delivers piercing insights into human nature. Obinze, who becomes wealthy beyond his dreams, is never sure “whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.” Another man, whose family Ifemelu works for, “looked people in the eye not because he was interested in them but because he knew it made them feel that he was interested in them.”
Adichie’s sensual prose is dazzling throughout. Here, an image of Obinze and Ifemelu on a cool Nigerian night during the harmattan, a West African winter trade wind: “Other nights, a sharp cold wind would descend, and Ifemelu would abandon her hostel room and, snuggled next to Obinze on her mattress, listen to the whistling pines howling outside, in a world suddenly fragile and breakable.”
This article appears in the May 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.