Doorstoppers of the Month: Americanah and Deerbrook

On one of my periodic trips back to the States, I saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak at a large Maryland library soon after Americanah (2013) was published. I didn’t retain much from her talk, except that her main character, Ifemelu, was a blogger about race issues and that Black hair also played a role. I was hugely impressed with Adichie in person: stylish and well-spoken, she has calm confidence and a mellifluous voice. In the “question” (comment) time I remember many young African and African American women saying how much her book meant to them, capturing the complexities of what it’s like to be Black in America.

Ironically, I have hoarded Adichie’s work over the years since then but not read it. I did read We Should All Be Feminists from the library for Novellas in November one year, but had accumulated copies of her other five books as gifts or from neighbors or the free bookshop. (Is there a tsundoku-type term for author-specific stockpiling?) Luckily, my first taste of her fiction exceeded my high expectations and whetted my appetite to read the rest.

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country,” a secondary African American character declares at an evening salon Ifemelu attends. Adichie puts the lie to that statement: her slight outsider status allows her to cut through stereotypes and pretenses and get right to the heart of the issue. The novel may be seven years old (and hearkens back to the optimism of Barack Obama’s first election), but it feels utterly fresh and relevant at a time when we are newly aware of the insidiousness of racism. Again and again, I nodded in wry acknowledgment of the truth of Ifemelu’s cutting observations:

Job Vacancy in America—National Arbiter in Chief of ‘Who Is Racist’: In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist.

Through Ifemelu’s years of studying, working and blogging her way around the Eastern seaboard of the United States, Adichie explores the ways in which the experience of an African abroad differs from that of African Americans. These subtleties become especially clear through her relationships with Curt (white) and Blaine (African American), which involve a performative aspect and a slight tension that were absent with Obinze, her teenage sweetheart. Obinze, too, tries life in another country, moving to the UK illegally. Although they eventually earn financial success and good reputations – with Obinze a married property developer back in Nigeria – both characters initially have to do debasing work to get by.

Americanah is so wise about identity and perceptions, with many passages that resonated for me as an expat. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria after 13 years, she doesn’t know if she or her country has changed: “She was no longer sure what was new in Lagos and what was new in herself … home was now a blurred place between here and there … there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself.”

I loved Ifemelu’s close bond with her cousin, Dike, who is more like a little brother to her, and the way the narrative keeps revisiting a New Jersey hair salon where she is getting her hair braided. These scenes reminded me of Barber Shop Chronicles, a terrific play I saw with my book club last year. The prose is precise, insightful and evocative (“she would not unwrap from herself the pashmina of the wounded,” “There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing”).

On a sentence level as well as at a macro plot level, this was engrossing and rewarding – just what I want from a doorstopper. The question of whether Ifemelu and Obinze will get back together is one that will appeal to fans of Normal People – can these sustaining teenage relationships ever last? – but Ifemelu is such a strong, independent character that it’s merely icing on the cake. I’m moving on to her Women’s Prize winner, Half of a Yellow Sun, next.

Page count: 477 (but tiny type)

Source: Free bookshop

My rating:

 

Deerbrook by Harriet Martineau (1839)

This was meant to be a buddy read with Buried in Print, but I fell at the first hurdle and started skimming after 35 pages. I haven’t made it through a Victorian triple-decker in well over a decade; just since 2012, I’ve failed to get through three novels by Charles Dickens, whom I used to call my favorite author. I’m mildly disappointed in myself, but may have to accept the change in my reading tastes. In my early 20s, I loved chunky nineteenth-century novels and got my MA in Victorian Literature, but nowadays I look at one of these 500+-page classics and think, why wade through something so tortuously verbose over a matter of weeks when I could read three or more contemporary novels that will have more bearing on my life, for the same word count and time?

In any case, Deerbrook is interesting from a cultural history point of view, sitting between Austen and the Brontës or George Eliot in terms of timeline, style and themes. In the fictional Midlands village of Deerbrook, the Greys and Rowlands are neighbors engaged in a polite feud while sharing a summer house and a governess. Orphaned sisters Hester and Margaret Ibbotson, 21 and 20, come to live with the Greys, their distant cousins and known dissenters. Hester got “all the beauty,” so it’s no surprise that, after a visit from a local doctor, Edward Hope, everyone is pairing him with her in their minds. I liked an early passage voicing the thoughts of Maria Young, the crippled governess (“How I love to overlook people,—to watch them acting unconsciously, and speculate for them!”), but soon tired of the matchmaking and moralizing. A world in which everyone does their duty is boring indeed.

Martineau, though, seems like a fascinating figure I’d like to read more about. She wrote a two-volume Autobiography, which I would also skim if I could find it from a library. Just her one-page bio at the front of my Virago paperback contained many astonishing sentences: “her education was interrupted by advancing deafness, requiring her to use an ear trumpet in later life”; “Her fiancé, John Hugh Worthington, having gone insane also died”; [after writing Deerbrook] “She then collapsed into bed where she was to remain for the next five years. In 1845 Harriet Martineau was dramatically cured by mesmerism,” etc.

Page count: 523 (again, tiny type)

Source: A UK secondhand bookshop 15+ years ago

23 responses

  1. I’m with you on classic chunksters – when I was young I sped through them, be it Tolstory or Dickens, and even Thucydides! Now I avoid them like the plague, although I am keen to read more Dickens.

    I really enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun, but haven’t read any others by Adichie yet. Yes – I stockpile authors too by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do mean to experience more Dickens, but (shockingly) I wouldn’t be averse to finding abridged editions. That’s how bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud recommended experiencing them, via audiobooks — reduces a 37-hour book to 5.

      I tried Half of a Yellow Sun a couple of years ago and didn’t get anywhere, but now that I’m used to her prose I’m in the zone and ready to leap right in.

      Eric did a video the other day about authors he thinks he’ll love and owns loads by but hasn’t read yet. I don’t watch vlogs but saw his tweet introducing it and it made me think of myself with Adichie. There are a few other authors I own two unread books by, but none had gotten to her level (five before now).

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  2. I remember reading, and being very impressed by, Americanah while staying on an alpaca farm in a very white part of Cornwall! The Adiche event sounds excellent

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that you’ve always remembered where you read this — it’s great when book and setting make for a memorable combination. She is such a good speaker. It’s well worth seeing her if you ever get the chance.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I have Americanah on my Kindle – I must check as you make it sound very impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d find it rewarding. It felt so timely, too.

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  4. You really sold Americanah to me. And then I saw the deal-breaker. Tiny print. I really don’t do tiny print. Grrr.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder why they chose to make the type so small in the paperback — I suppose to save on paper. With a normal type size, perhaps it would have been 600+ pages. I wonder if the hardback is any better? I don’t suppose you e-read, but on a Kindle you can change the type size and font to suit you.

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  5. I loved Americanah, I think I might have read it on kindle because I can’t remember tiny print. I love the sound of Deerbrook, but I don’t like tiny print. I recently read a largish Victorian VMC and it was such a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Deerbrook would be more your sort of book than mine 🙂

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      1. Yes I think it probably would. 😁

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Americanah is just so great (and I love small print 🙂 ). I’m afraid nothing else she’s written has ever come close to it for me. What is her sixth book? I count three novels and a book of short stories plus Feminists. I thought I’d read everything she’d written but would be glad to be proven wrong!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so short it barely counts, but I have a mini hardback of “Dear Ijeawele” that I got from a neighbour. I started Half of a Yellow Sun (again) last night and I wish I could say it’s easier this time around, but it’s still feeling like a slog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ha, I’ve actually read that! I got it mixed up with We Should All Be Feminists which I haven’t read 🙂

        I learnt a huge amount from Half of A Yellow Sun when I first read it as an undergrad, but (with the caveat that it’s now almost 15 years since I read it) I’m not sure it works as a novel. I think Adichie was still struggling with how to combine the personal and the political in the way she does so brilliantly in Americanah.

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  7. I loved Americanah but I raced through it and I think it’s definitely one to add to my re-reading pile for next year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can imagine it being a rewarding reread. I have to read her other 4 books first! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Alyson Woodhouse | Reply

    It’s interesting what you are saying about feeling less inclined to reading long Victorian novels these days. If anything, I’ve gone the other way over the last two or three years. I think I have acquired a lot more patience, and have become kind of used to all the digressions and multiple sub-plots. I know I wouldn’t have been able to cope with such novels at university though, my brain would have just switched off.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, we’ve had the opposite trajectory! I hope at some point in the future I will again have the patience for Victorian triple-deckers.

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  9. I have a feeling there’s a chapter on Harriet Martineau in Sara Wheeler’s O My America, if you have or have access to that. She was a really interesting human!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did read that! But back in 2013, and I’ve clearly forgotten all the details (even as to which women she included) in the last seven years. I’ll see if I can access it again via a library.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. […] like something out of Middlemarch or even Jane Austen.” I was also reminded of the sister pair in Deerbrook: one got all the beauty, but the other seems much more […]

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  11. […] best two summer binge reads this year were Rodham and Americanah; my two summery classics, though more subtle, were also perfect. Mostly Dead Things by Kristen […]

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  12. […] third by Adichie this year, and an ideal follow-up to Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah because it reworks or anticipates themes and settings from both novels. For instance, the former […]

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