LBC White Swan
Venue: White Swan Leeds
Date: Sunday 10th of April 2016
Address: Swan Street, Leeds
A powerful, tender story of race and identity by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.
About the author:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria. Her work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared in various publications, including The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times, and Zoetrope. She is the author of the novelsPurple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, a New York Times Notable Book, and a People and Black Issues Book Review Best Book of the Year; and the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck. Her latest novel Americanah, was published around the world in 2013, and has received numerous accolades, including winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and The Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction; and being named one of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year.
A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, she divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.
As a group, most of us had really enjoyed this book – some of us more than we’d expected to, as from the blurb the plot looked very slight.
The real strength of this book is in the characters. All were very relatable, well-drawn and sympathetic. There was particular affection for Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju. For a book with such a large cast of characters, it would have been easy for some to have felt like stereotypes, but this never felt the case. Even characters that only appeared briefly were well-rounded and believable. There weren’t really any dislikeable characters, with the possible exception of Blaine’s sister Shan, but we felt this was because the characters didn’t like her either!
Some of us felt the plot was almost incidental – that this was more a novel of ideas than plot – but that this wasn’t a negative thing. Someone had quoted the author as saying she was more interested in substance than structure, and this felt very true of this book. Having said that, we also thought that it was structurally very clever, and well-crafted. The word “unputdownable” was used! Apparently the author spent 5 years writing this book, and the craft and care taken are apparent.
The narrative is interspersed throughout with excerpts from Ifem’s blog, these are thematic rather than chronological. Although this can sometimes be a slightly irritating device in books, here we all thought it worked really well. We all really enjoyed the style of Ifem’s blog – if it were a real blog, we would have followed it!
Our only small criticism of the book’s structure was that it would have been nice to see more of Obinze – although some in the group would have preferred to do without his sections at all and just focus on Ifemelu! We all agreed though that the divide between the two characters was rather uneven. For example, Obinze’s journey from being deported from the UK and returning, broke, to Nigeria, to becoming a wealthy but corrupt businessman, was glossed over. Some of us would have liked to see more of how he had made this journey, but we thought it was probably glossed over as it reflects Ifem’s view of him, as she would also have perceived this change as jarring.
There was lots in this book that made for slightly uncomfortable reading, in particular the portrayal of Ifem’s white, liberal friends in the US, and their varying discomfort and cluelessness around race. It also raised a lot of issues that some of us hadn’t been familiar with (although some had come across them before), for example the politicisation of black women’s hair. We thought it was notable that Ifem’s starts wearing her hair naturally around the same time she stops faking an American accent – we saw this as her realisation that being accepted as American isn’t what she needs or wants.
Most of the story is fairly timeless, with limited details that fix it to a particular time period. The exception to this is of course the sections detailing Barack Obama’s election as US President, which we had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it was felt that this took us out of the story somewhat, grounding it in a specific time and place, which was a little jarring. On the other hand, in a book about an African woman living in the US and blogging about race, such a significant event in US racial history could hardly have been ignored! We also wondered if, without the context of Obama’s election placing the narrative in a specific time period, it would have been easier for readers to have dismissed the racism Ifem experiences as a thing of the past.
We had mixed feelings about the ending. Some of us felt it was unrealistic for Ifem and Obinze to have ended up together, with them having grown apart so much. We wondered if perhaps Ifem was clinging on to her memories of the Obinze she had known and been in love with in the past. The ending was the only real let down for some of us, the romantic “happy ending” felt a bit shoehorned in.
Other than that minor note, we all rated this book very highly, and would definitely read more of this author’s work.