Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014, this book is not the story I thought it would be, but it raised the issues I hoped it would.
From the back cover:
As teenagers in Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. Ifemelu departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and achieves triumphs, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in Britain.
Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. When Ifemelu decides to return home, she and Obinze will face the hardest decision of their lives.
From reading the above blurb, I expected to be deeply moved by this book, reading the dangers, challenges, and triumphs of both Ifemelu and Obinze. However, that was not the case and this, for me, read as Ifemelu’s musings on race in America. Therefore, there was no ‘great story’, rather an account of one girls experiences. I did really enjoy the relationship Ifemelu had with her younger cousin Dike, who lived in America his whole life. There wasn’t a huge amount of Obinze’s experiences – I was expecting some emotive prose about Obinze’s time in London – “as he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in Britain” – that wasn’t the case either, it was more like, he came, he was caught, he was sent home. Hence, why I say this is not the story I thought it would be.
It was nice, however, to read about the contrasting lifestyles of Ifemelu living in Africa and her experiences in America. Even down to the little things, like the use of the phrase “I know”, used in the west as a phrase of agreement rather than knowledge.
There were certain phrases Adichie used that I thought were wonderful:
“New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here.”
The idea of a place smelling of neglect is such a deep description, by using one word – neglect – Adichie said so much about Ifemelu’s thoughts of New Haven. In contrast describing Princeton as having no smell paints the picture of lovely, clean neighbourhoods. In a few short sentences Adichie has given us so much information.
Regarding the race issues raised in this book, I think they are great for generating discussion and raising awareness. And there were a few scenarios mentioned in the book, that I have experienced myself as a black women, for example, growing up my local supermarket did not stock hair products for afro-hair so I had to take a train further afield to buy hair products. And if you read this book, Adichie isn’t lying when she says it takes 6 hours to get your hair braided with extensions. That was a light-hearted example compared to some of the issues raised in this book, Adichie mentions interracial relationships, people’s perceptions of what is acceptable, the difference in how black people are treated in America based on whether they have an accent or not, western vs non-western views on depression and so on. These are the issues, among others, I’m glad were raised in the book. Nothing is too deep, it’s more written in a way to get you thinking/talking about these things.
Sadly, about 50 pages before the end of the book, I just wanted it to end, and not for good reasons. My copy of the book is 477 pages long, had this book been half its length I would have recommended it to everybody and anybody. But for me, it was just too long, as I said, it was more a musing than a story to me, so there was no great revelation/twist I was waiting for, no profound, or dare I say it, new, ideas, no substancial food-for-thought were brought to my attention and that affected my enjoyment but for others who have different life experiences to mine may enjoy it a whole lot more than I did. I think your life experience and open-mindedness determine your enjoyment of this book.