Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you don't think a hairstyle can be important then you need to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, Americanah. Throughout the novel hair is used as a metaphor, specifically African hair and the effort and expense women go in transforming it, the braids and weaves, the chemical relaxing to make it smooth rather than kinky.
In Americanah, hair is a political statement, a sign of identity, a source of conflict, an emblem of freedom and more. Part love story, part scrutiny of contemporary race issues, this is an insightful and powerful piece of work, confronting at times, but thoughtful rather than angry, and both intelligent and accessible.
The story begins in a rundown African braiding salon where Princeton fellow Ifemelu is having her hair done before returning to Nigeria after 15 years in America.
Might she struggle to fit back into her own country given that she seems such a foreigner in the salon, we wonder? After all, she reads scholarly literature rather than watching Nigerian movies, nibbles on a granola bar rather than eating fried chicken and has nothing in common with the staff of the salon. Has the immigrant experience been so dislocating that Ifemelu will be out of place now wherever she lives?
Adichie takes us back to Ifemelu's teenage years and shows us a smart, opinionated young woman who falls in love with Obinze, the new boy at school. Both are fascinated with American culture and when she leaves to study in the US he hopes to follow but, in the aftermath of 9/11, is refused a visa.
Ifemelu struggles to find her place in this new country, finding it more complicated than she had envisaged. This section of the book is the most affecting as, jobless and displaced, Ifemelu grows increasingly depressed. The issue isn't particularly one of overt racism - Adichie is subtler than that.
It is the discomfort surrounding race and the confusion around identity she wants to explore. Endowing Ifemelu with a blog gives her the opportunity to do so inside and outside the story. In Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks By A Non American Black (terrible name!) Ifemelu plain-speaks about everything from Barack Obama to the discovery that to Americans she is not Igbo, not even Nigerian, but part of a great homogenous tribe called "black".
We also get snippets of Obinze's history as he has his own immigrant struggle working illegally in the UK, and then returns to Nigeria to become part of the culture of greed and excess there.
Ifemelu and Obinze's love story forms the backbone of the novel but it also shares features with Adichie's biography: like Ifemelu, she left Nigeria to study and became a Princeton fellow, so presumably personal experience has inspired some of the events and many of the observations.
Quite late in the novel she has a character declare that you can't write an honest novel about race in America. This book seems to be Adichie's response to that statement.
It is brave and honest, uncompromising and sometimes uncomfortable to read from a white perspective. I expect to see its name appear on the next round of awards shortlists.