Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah-300x0Americanah. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright 2013. HarperCollins 2014

I’ve been making eyes at Half of a Yellow Sun for a while now but for some reason Americanah was the first book by Adichie I actually read. I definitely didn’t regret it. Americanah is a great sprawling book that challenges the complex issues of race and identity and yet also manages to tell a captivating story.

Ifemelu and Obinze grow up in military ruled Nigeria and their love seems to be an unbreakable thing. However as one heads to America and gets labelled “Black” for the first time and the other ends up as an illegal immigrant in the UK after being denied entry into the U.S, we watch them break apart and after 15 years move slowly back together again.

The book is written from the perspective of Ifemelu and Obinze and features a large cast of memorable characters. The narrative jumps back and forth between both characters first returning to a now democratic Nigeria, their days at university and their life in the West.

My favourite part of this book was definitely Ifemelu’s blog and her chatty articles on race, class, misogyny and colourism. I loved her writing style and the fictional blog is one I would follow myself.

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

 

The love story between Ifemelu and Obinze isn’t just a backdrop for the themes or the plot but the driving heart of the book. I wasn’t unmoved at their first meeting or the way they fit together. They didn’t win me over completely as individuals. Their feelings of superiority over the other characters (something they occasionally realise themselves) and Obinze’s “gentle disdain” for the wife he cheats on were things I couldn’t ignore but as a love story they worked.

I highly recommend this book not only as an engaging piece of fiction but as a masterful look at immigration, the diaspora and the intricacies of race that we often find we cannot put into words ourselves. I found myself smiling over so many characters in this book who represented people I have met in real life.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

tarttThe Secret History, Donna Tartt 1992, Penguin 1993

Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another…a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life…and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning….

This book was very excellent at escapism. I read through it in two days and hardly put it down. It was never boring and like all great storytellers Tartt made me forget sometimes I was reading a book and made me see the story playing out in my head.

It is like watching a modern Greek tragedy from very close up looking at this story through the protagonist, Richard. But if we had seen it through the other characters it would have been like being in the tragedy itself.

Except for the sullen unrequited desire for Camilla, Richard does not seem to feel any depth of emotion at all.

There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty. But Beauty- unless she is wed to something more meaningful- is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important.

This for me mirrors the concept of this whole book. It is the argument that the French teacher Laforgue makes as to Richard as to why the Greek professor heading this elitist group is not perfect. I think the main problem I had while reading this book (not that I didn’t enjoy it very much!) was that the snobbish clique did not appeal to me and I found it shallow and ridiculous.

The other characters Charles Francis, Camilla and even Henry, we find, are driven almost mad by their passion and love and jealousy but in a way Richard is like Bunny and just jealously watches from the outside unable to feel the frenzy for himself.

I would have liked to actually see the bachnaal instead of just hearing hints about it from the other characters. In fact the love affairs, the bachnaal experiments, the luxury rooms in Italy were all heard from the other characters so I kept expecting Richard would experience something of this for himself but it never happened.

This is a mystery well worth reading. As the author said herself its not so much a whodunit but a whydunit. We know the character Bunny dies from the first page but the slow eerie build-up to his murder is still horrifying to watch and still a surprise when it happens. Tartt is brilliant at building a slow cold tension and the book is claustrophobic and fairly suffocating to read.

I think if I had read this book when I was sixteen I would have loved it and loved the idealised light the characters paint themselves in and the elitist world they build for themselves but now I see them building themselves from surface and pretensions.  Tartt shows us the pretty decadent looking world and then hints at the sham that it is.