Review: Americanah

This review contains spoilers.

AmericanahAmericanah is best known for being a Race Book about Race, which sort of makes it quite hard for me as a white Westerner, shielded as I am by middle-class privilege, to write about without being a) patronising or b) dismissive. It follows two young Nigerians as they attempt to navigate their late-capitalist landscape: Ifemelu, who goes to university in America and starts a wildly successful race blog; and her sweetheart Obinze, who goes to England to work and has considerably less luck. It’s a sprawling novel, such that to write about it at blog-post length is inevitably to diminish it; but it seems to me significantly a novel about disenfranchisement, about placelessness, about the vague dissatisfaction of finding that your life is not quite what you hoped it would be, that the dreams capitalism peddled to you are forever just out of reach. The unique tragedy of those who can see over the fence but not climb over it.

In America, Ifemelu is Nigerian (or, more likely, “African”); when she returns to Nigeria, she’s American; not quite belonging to either place.

And although Obinze returns quite successfully to Nigeria after his deportation from England (where people he grew up with patronise him, guilt-trip him or generally fleece him), he remains vaguely unhappy with his life as a wealthy property developer in a more-or-less loveless marriage; locked out of the promise of American wealth by prejudice and circumstance.

One of the ways I’ve been thinking about Americanah is in terms of analysis as opposed to synthesis. Most of the novel is narrated through the eyes of Ifemelu, who is a blogger through-and-through: which is to say, an observer and an analyst. It’s through her eyes that the book makes many of its observations about race, especially race in America: the subtle microaggressions, the unspoken racial hierarchy, the social and moral compromises that POCs often have to make. She sees in nuance; but one of the things that really strikes me about the book is that it doesn’t judge. It doesn’t judge people, anyway; it sees reality, but it doesn’t create one. And perhaps we can relate that back to the book’s theme of disenfranchisement: the outsider’s power is the ability to see and understand, but not to participate.

And that makes me wonder about the novel’s finale. Because Americanah is a love story, one that is often heartbreaking, and one that has a happy ending: Ifemelu and Obinze finally, satisfyingly, end up together, again, after misunderstandings and misery and loss. It’s an ending that finally transforms analysis into synthesis; the book stops analysing and starts creating, creating a happy-ever-after future; more interestingly, though, it’s an ending that sets up a tension between the personal and the political. Because on a personal level, it resolves the theme of disenfranchisement: what is a successful relationship but the creation of a place in which all parties can belong? The shared history of Ifemelu and Obinze generates a shared space in which they can start creating, together. But the ending doesn’t generate a social solution; it collapses that wide, nuanced focus to a narrow, personal one. Not judging also means not (re)solving.

I’m not sure that I mean this as a criticism; I enjoyed Americanah very much, and I think it would be a lesser novel without its ending. As I said above, I don’t, in any case, feel like I’m in a position to criticise; but I do feel I owe the text a response. So this is it. It is, in all probability, woefully inadequate.

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