AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf), 477 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sweeping story of two Nigerian lovers who have vastly different experiences when they emigrate is a powerful exploration of race, class and power.
Not that it's ideologically rigid; quite the opposite. The experiences of Ifemelu and Obinze, who separate so she can study in the U.S. and he can head to the UK, are related with subtlety and insight.
In America, Ifemelu, beautiful and brilliant, struggles to understand what being black means. Race, she realizes, doesn't exist in Nigeria, but in the U.S. it defines her. She taps her outsider status and her intellect to craft a popular blog on race.
In London, Obinze can't get the treasured national security number that would allow him to work - forcing him into various humiliating situations - and returns to Lagos, where he becomes wealthy in Nigeria's increasingly corrupt corporate sector.
Shamed by having to turn a trick for cash she desperately needs, Ifemelu stops communicating with Obinze and, even as her blog starts generating significant income, can't bring herself to reconnect. She does, however, eventually return home - to what she isn't certain.
Adichie revels in refusing to dumb down the race debate. The conversation in the salon where Ifemelu gets her hair straightened (Adichie makes hair - straight, curly, natural or extensions - contested terrain in smart ways) highlights the differences among black women.
And the author has a field day with Ifemelu's boyfriends, one white and rich and crazy about her, the other black and insufferably self-righteous. Nobody's perfect in these scenarios.
This is a book of ideas, many of them expressed in devastatingly realistic dialogue spoken by the realistically flawed characters around Ifemelu and Obinze.
But Adichie knows story, too. She has a gift for narrative, moving back and forth in time, teasing us with details that let us hope that her two protagonists will find each other.
But nothing is simple in Americanah, which is what makes it a magnificent novel.