I found this novel fun and memorable, sharing many of the traits of its principal character Ifemelu. She's an engaging but highly flawed person who seems to pass her days judging the people around her, telling folks she’s only just met about their own experiences, even saying “That’s a lie” to someone she disagrees with. Yet she cannot bear that other people should occasionally judge her. She thinks she sees The World As It Truly Is, while everyone else merely grasps at shadows, bound up in their own biases and limited perspectives. She perceives racism everywhere around her--except in Nigeria where, we learn, there’s no racism, merely “prejudice.” She begrudges other people their privileges while blind to her own.
Ifemelu spends much of her time casting a disapproving eye at others—Malian hair braiders, white American carpet cleaners, Haitian poets, Asian beauty parlor managers, white American girls with cornrows, francophone Africans, crass fellow Nigerians, Black American activists, and anyone more honest than herself. Reading the Ifemelu chapters I began to feel swamped by a gentle but persistent tide of negativity. Where was the beauty in humanity? Where was the love?
But the love was there for Obinze, Ifemelu's romantic foil, who as a character is less contradictory and less fully formed than she. He is primarily a site for desire (namely the desire to emigrate to America), and someone to whom unfortunate things happen. The novel's American characters, irrespective of their race, struck me as entitled, child-like, and conspicuously unaware of themselves, while its protagonists Ifemelu and Obinze seem to have keen senses of who they are and what they want.
As for the audio performance, narrating "Americanah" could only be a huge challenge given its characters' array of accents—Nigerian, British, and American, of course, but also French, Ethiopian, Angolan, Malian, Kenyan, etc. Anglo-Ghanaian actress Adjoah Andoh performs Adichie’s third-person narration in a clipped, upper class British accent such as one hears on the BBC. Her rendering of Nigerian and British characters’ accents sounds, to my American ear, convincing and delightfully varied, but the dialect she uses for the novel’s American characters (male or female, black or white) is monochromatic and nasal, such that most Americans (and even Nigerians who've spent time in America) come off sounding like Fran Drescher. Whether or not this was intentional, it lessened my listening enjoyment. While Ms. Andoh's mispronunciations were occasionally amusing-- someone please teach her how to say “Potomac, Maryland”!--they were also frequently distracting.
Reading and listening to this story had me at turns intrigued, impressed, frustrated and bemused. Yet weeks after finishing it, I find myself often thinking back on these characters and their observations, and sometimes second-guessing my own beliefs and behaviors. I can say that, as a direct result of reading "Americanah," I have sworn off eating ice cream cones in public: Ifemelu wouldn't approve. And, as a direct result of listening to Ms. Andoh's narration, I'm considering pronouncing the "t" in the word "often."
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