Americanah (Ala Notable Books for Adults)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
496 pp., $28.95
Racial awareness and racial slights—real or imagined—fill Americanah, until Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, where she tells a friend: "Race doesn't really work here. I feel like I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black." What does matter in Lagos is wealth, power, and status. While the novel excels in skewering pretentious liberal Americans (particularly academics) and exposing the nuanced challenges of race in the United States, contemporary Nigeria does not fare any better. "Big men" sponsor other men in shady business deals and keep young, attractive, well-educated women as mistresses while their wives embark on an elaborate social circuit. Government corruption and bribes, shady real estate deals, and shallow flattering and obeisance are the oil that keeps the social and economic machinery running, bringing great wealth to a few, while the majority remain in poverty.
Adichie's fiction typically includes references to Christianity, but in Americanah, faith and religious practice play a more minor role than in some of her earlier books. Despite a few references to Catholicism, the novel pays the most attention to an African Pentecostal health and wealth gospel. Ifemelu's mother renounces her Catholicism to join the Guiding Assembly, a church full of the newly affluent: "If she worshipped with the prosperous, she said, then God would bless her as He had blessed them." Numerous characters "name it and claim it," praying to receive an American visa, consumer goods, or a wealthy husband. Material success rather than spiritual depth is what matters, and prayers can be employed for any purpose without moral qualms. Ifemelu's aunt, unable to support herself despite being a physician, becomes the mistress of a powerful government official, known only as the General, and no one appears to question her situation on moral grounds: "Every morning, Ifemelu's mother prayed for the General. She would say, 'Heavenly father, I command you to bless Uju's mentor. May his enemies never triumph over him!' Or she would say, 'We cover Uju's mentor with the precious blood of Jesus!' "
Obinze has become part of this world, with an accompanying trophy wife, but the novel ignores his questionable business activities and allegiances to portray his enduring love for Ifemelu as the solution to the shallowness of his life. While it's tempting to read the entire novel as satiric, including Ifemelu and Obinze's romance, the narrative structure leads to the love of two soulmates as the ultimate locus of meaning. Ifemelu herself is a lively and perceptive protagonist, but her intellectual arrogance and self-absorption ultimately make her less than sympathetic. With a wickedly sharp eye for the telling detail, Adichie neatly skewers both African and American attitudes toward race and identity, yet the novel ultimately feels hollow, without a meaningful core of concern for others providing a foil against which the satire can be judged.
Susan VanZanten is professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. Her academic memoir, Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar's Journey from America to Africa, is forthcoming from Baker.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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