The late Maya Angelou once said, “I don’t trust people who don’t love themselves and tell me, ‘I love you.’ ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
One wonders what the sharp-tongued protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s third novel would have to say about it. Proverbs have their place in the story, as characters in Nigeria test their Igbo against one another, but so does a criticism of the ways in which American blacks can reduce the culture of the ‘motherland’ in ways that Africans barely recognize.
As for the question of self-love: Does Ifemelu, the main character, possess it? The book anchors in many ways to relationships with the men she loves and leaves. But Ifemelu appears to know herself fully. She insists on speaking English the way she learned it back home, rather than adopting an American accent. She finds strength in the choice to wear her hair naturally.
The majority of the novel, spanning years spent by Ifemelu and her love Obinze in Nigeria and abroad, is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to a hair-braiding salon on the eve of her departure from America (as if to comment on the length of time one spends getting hair braided). The narrative includes posts from the heroine’s blog, always detailing some peculiarity of American culture from the perspective of a self-designated “non-American black.”
With language so simple it approaches sparsity, Adichie’s evocative tail is carefully braided. Ifemelu and Obinze find themselves in exile from their native Nigeria and from one another. At times, the narrative also seems to serve an agenda of social commentary. Race and culture enter conversations among characters, at times implausibly. It’s a social novel that never forgets it’s a social novel. The first election of Obama, a pivotal moment in the story of race in America, plays a large role in this story, too.
Adichie’s ensemble of characters provides the real treat in this novel. We meet Ifemelu’s family, her fundamentalist Christian mother and relatively passive father, as well as her Aunty Uju and cousin Dike (whose departure for America precedes her own). We find colorful vignettes among Ifemelu’s classmates in Nigeria and in the United States, mostly Angolan and British folk Obinze meets in England. We also experience Ifemelu’s employers and their families, and the disembodied voices of people she meets in Internet chats or who comment on her blog.
The novel succeeds because we come to care about the fate of this motley crew … and of Ifemelu particularly.
This book with heart may be well on the way to establishing itself as a classic for our age.
Chantal James is a fiction writer and grad student in the DC area.