Our main protagonist is Ifemelu, a bright, beautiful young Nigerian woman who, when she leaves her homeland to pursue new opportunities in America, fully intends to keep her relationship with her beloved boyfriend Obinze going. But things don’t quite pan out as she hopes, and Ifemelu, ashamed of her lack of conspicuous achievement, begins to feel ambivalent about some connections from her past – Obinze included.
When we first encounter them, the former couple have already been apart a turbulent few years. Obinze is successful, none-too-blissfully married, and living back in Nigeria after a spell as an illegal immigrant in the UK. Ifemelu, still in America, is largely over her personal teething troubles; the survivor of a couple more intense relationships; and deeply immersed in the politics of racial identity, via a popular blog that she writes on the subject and a fellowship she’s doing at Princeton. Distracted as they’ve been, each still bears secret regrets about letting their youthful relationship go. Through flashbacks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche shows us the patchwork of influences and experiences that has brought them to their current paths in life – before opening, for them and for us, the awkward but tantalising possibility of a reunion.
The positioning of Obinze and Ifemelu – migrants fleeing not deprivation or desperation, but a simple lack of opportunity; people hitherto unaware of race as an impediment who upon entering new nations have “become black”, and accustomed themselves to second-class citizenhood – is challenging and interesting. Unfortunately, part of the challenge for the reader is Ifemelu’s personality.
The bulk of the story is told from her perspective, and partly in her blog posts; and her relentlessly harsh judgment of those who surround her gives matters a distinctly sour tang. Obviously, outright racism ticks Ifemelu off; but so too do naively bleeding-hearted white liberals who gesture towards making amends for racism, intellectuals who have theories about race, activists who protest about race issues, people who don’t mention race, and people who think that other things apart from race matter.
Oh, and that’s emphatically race in the sense of whether you are black or not. Prejudice experienced by other racial groups doesn’t matter as much, because they are closer to being white; and anti-Semitism is nothing like as pernicious, because it comprises an element of envy (“and a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy.” Yep, 1930s Germany was just teeming with that grudging respect).
Also on the long list of Things That Annoy Ifemelu: black people who emphasise that they’re mixed or “biracial” (they’re trying to deny their blackness); white people who think every black person is just black, full stop (since that “black” person might be mixed or biracial); Americans who assume she’s African-American and not African, or don’t know the difference; people who ask her questions about Africa; people who don’t ask her questions about Africa; people who assume all black people are angry; people who don’t acknowledge that all black people are and should be angry.
Sometimes, her self-contradictions are breathtakingly direct. In a few pages she goes from a blog post contending that “dark black women” and “beautiful chocolate babes” like Michelle Obama “totally rock”, to one that complains bitterly about generalisations based on degrees of blackness. How would she react to the phrase “beautiful chocolate babe” being used by someone else? Not well, one suspects.
Maybe the snarl-up of contradictions is part of the point Adichie is trying to make. Race is so complicated (although, please note, Ifemelu doesn’t like people who go around claiming that race is complicated – that means “they just want you to shut up already”), the scars so deep and the resentments so entrenched that every position is compromised.
The hurt seems so personal that anyone else’s subjective take appears suspect. Such recognition of the instability of opinions and arguments might be useful. As a reader of a work of fiction, however, it’s hard to keep faith with Ifemelu’s negativity. She’s wound up by everybody. She seems to spend her life seething through social occasions at which she’s surrounded by people less sophisticated and sensitive than herself. Obinze – a gentler creation – gets less page time, and even some of his falls into the same category of snippy social satire.
At a dinner party, posh Brits pretentiously dine off tableware “handmade by poor people in a foreign country” and say stuck-up things about immigration. Adichie clearly enjoys sticking Austen-esque claws into this sort of situation, but it gets old. If even the well-meaning are regarded with disdain, the effect is not so much provocative as nihilistic.
Even food disappoints – finally back in Nigeria, Ifemelu finds herself tiring of the local food she’s craved, and missing American treats. Romantic love is the one chink through which Adichie allows some optimism to enter a thoughtful and impressively layered but finally rather soul-sapping book.