The music had begun. “Let’s dance?” he asked. She nodded. He took her hand and then smiled at Ginika, as though to a nice chaperone whose job was now done. Ifemelu thought Mills and Boon romances were silly , she and her friends sometimes enacted the stories, Ifemelu or Ranyinudo would play the man and Ginika or Priye would play the woman— the man would grab the woman, the woman would fight weakly, then collapse against him with shrill moans— and they would all burst out laughing. But in the filling-up dance floor of Kayode’s party, she was jolted by a small truth in those romances. It was indeed true that because of a male, your stomach could tighten up and refuse to unknot itself, your body’s joints could unhinge, your limbs fail to move to music, and all effortless things suddenly become leaden. As she moved stiffly, she saw Ginika in her side vision, watching them, her expression puzzled, mouth slightly slack, as though she did not quite believe what had happened.
observations: This is a phenomenally interesting and enjoyable book, achieving something very rare: it combines being a fascinating funny story, a page-turning read, and a polemic with something important and serious to say about race, immigration, culture and modern life.
The two young people above are students in Nigeria: they fall very much in love, but both feel they have to leave in order to achieve what they want in life. Ifemelu goes to the USA, Obinze to England, though they will both return. The book opens with Ifemelu getting her hair braided in a black salon in Trenton NJ (she can’t get it done in Princeton). As she sits for the hours it takes - observing the ways of the salon, talking to the staff – she thinks back on her life till now, and her future: she is about to go back to Nigeria.
Adichie writes fascinatingly about the immigrant experience, some of which would be familiar to anyone moving in from any part of the world: the ways in which Americans are different, the eternal question – do you have to fit in, change, to get on? One character says ‘You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.’ Race comes up naturally in this context, and it is taken to a deep and engrossing level. But then, this is also – and to a very high level - a story about modern life, about dealing with your friends and your lovers and your parents. One really interesting strand is that Ifemelu becomes a very successful blogger, and the details and posts on this are particularly good: ‘She checked her blog e-mail too often, like a child eagerly tearing open a present she is not sure she wants’. The book makes you realize how little there is about this in modern fiction, it helps the book feel real. (Blogging, by coincidence, came up recently in The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith – but only briefly, a pity there wasn’t more, as the author did it very well.)
Adichie has marvellous turns of phrase. The couple who have had ‘three years free of crease, like a smoothly ironed sheet, until their only fight’; the moment where Ifemelu ‘knew that for a long time afterwards, she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded.’ There are two brilliantly-observed dinner parties (as mentioned in my recent Guardian piece on the subject) – at one, a guest asks another about building work ‘Are they between you and the sunset?’ and there is mention of ‘a fantastic charity that’s trying to stop the UK from hiring so many African health workers.’
A character says ‘academics were not intellectuals; they were not curious, they built their stolid tents of specialized knowledge and stayed securely in them.’
Obama is elected President ‘And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.’
Adichie is the real thing – such a talented writer, such a lot to say.
Her view of America, young people and educational establishments reminded me also of the work of Curtis Sittenfeld, Donna Tartt and Rebecca Harrington.
The picture is by William H Johnson from the Smithsonian.