Have you read Americanah? I’m one of those irritating people who, when he’s read and loved a book, obsesses all his friends about it until, no doubt, a fair number of them discreetly ‘hide’ me from their Facebook feed. So here I am to try my luck with you guys, this Sunday morning.
Thing is, I’d been postponing reading Americanah for a while now. It was shortlisted for many awards in 2013 and 2014, and was a staple on those years’ must-read lists and bookshop promotions. It sold massively and, after a Ted Talk delivered by the author was sampled by Beyoncé on her song Flawless (sigh, yes…) it had a further mega-bump in sales and visibility.
It is also, apparently, in the throes of being defaced – sorry, I meant made – into a movie produced by Brad Pitt and starring Lupita Nyong’o. Somehow, though, I thought yet another book on race and racial identity was not what I wanted to read at the time, so I kept passing on it.
But I did start it eventually, this summer. I was probably stuck on some trip without access to a bookshop and had to resort to scavenging among my “bought on impulse but never read” pile on my Kindle.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the author, is widely known for her debut novel Purple Hibiscus, which has the dubious honour of having been studied for literature exam purposes by many. Adichie’s power as a storyteller is formidable, and Americanah is one of those books that draws you in, making you feel for its characters, wanting to read that little bit more and to get to know them a bit better.
You’ll read about how Americanah is a novel about displacement and identity but, thing is, to me it could almost have been a novel about Malta. Lagos, Nigeria – where a good part of the novel is set – amazed me for how similar in character and spirit it is to home. I’ve never been to Nigeria, but if Adichie’s descriptions are accurate then some elements are uncanny:
The typical random find that makes visits to bookshops so rewarding and so irreplaceable
There’s a city overrun by construction, unregulated and relentless, with cranes dominating the city skyline. There’s an “u iva mhux xorta” way of doing things, of cutting corners and getting well-placed friends of friends to dish out favours or administrative permits. Then there’s this:
“The Nigerpolitan Club, a group of young returnees who gather every week to moan about the many ways that Lagos is not like New York as though Lagos had ever been close to being like New York.”
Substitute Malta for Lagos, and London/Brussels for New York, and does it remind you of someplace?
Do give it a read – you might find yourself, as I did, highlighting or marking away countless phrases that just remind you of someone you know, or a situation you’ve been in or a party you were trapped at. Read this, an almost-random line about one of the lead characters in the novel:
“And it struck Obinze that, a few years ago, they were attending weddings, now it was christenings and soon it would be funerals. They would die. They would all die after trudging through lives in which they were neither happy nor unhappy.”
If dysfunctional cities are your thing, and if you’ve got some more summer holidays left after reading Americanah, you might want to hop on to Ways to Disappear.
A much shorter novel, I should have mentioned that Americanah is quite the door-stopper. Disappear is the debut novel by Idra Novey, set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Very topical and all that, although the Olympics feature but none at all.
Ways to Disappear is a fun, read-in-a-couple-of-sessions-at-the-beach romp set around, of all things, a literary translator. A well-respected Brazilian author disappears, so her English translator travels, on an impulse, to Rio to join forces with the author’s children and search for her.
Among the improbable cast of characters, we find a loan shark who thinks there are millions to be made from literary translation – Novey is a translator herself, so the book is full of in-jokes about the profession of literary translator – a flamboyant over-the-top independent publisher, an Adonis-type love interest for the translator who keeps forgetting his boxer shorts in her hotel room, and a jealous (with good reason) boyfriend of the translator who follows her to Rio.
This book was, for me, the typical random find that makes visits to bookshops so rewarding and so irreplaceable. Carried to the fore on the strength of the frenzy for Elena Ferrante’s books, it’s worth a read especially if you enjoy writing irreverence and a gentle streak of WTF.