AMERICANAH, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Alfred A. Knopf, 477 pp., $26.95.
In the classic immigrant tale, a striver from another part of the world comes to America to study or to work. Cultural dislocation -- even alienation -- is inevitable, but the immigrant eventually, tentatively, puts down roots. Writers such as Chang-rae Lee, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz have explored various corners of this experience.
"Americanah," the winning new novel by Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, works a variation on the theme. The protagonist, Ifemelu, is from a middle-class family in Lagos. A sense of stagnation and drift in Nigeria leads her to the United States in pursuit of higher education and better opportunities. After a rocky start, she makes a success of herself with a popular, provocative blog called "Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black." But even with the passage of years -- and romantic relationships with Americans black and white -- she finds herself homesick for Nigeria, and the high school boyfriend, Obinze, who shares her frame of reference. What if the roots never really take?
As the novel opens, Ifemelu is on her way from Princeton to Trenton to have her hair braided (there is no braiding salon in Princeton -- an inconvenience that mushrooms in her mind) and contemplating the possibility of return. "She scoured Nigerian websites, Nigerian profiles on Facebook, Nigerian blogs, and each click brought yet another story of a young person who had recently moved back home, clothed in American or British degrees, to start an investment company, a music production business, a fashion label, a magazine, a fast-food franchise," Adichie writes. "Americanah" is Nigerian slang for a returnee with foreign affectations.
Adichie is best known for her 2006 novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun," which won Britain's Orange Prize. In 2008, she received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Only 35, she is a writer of copious gifts -- not a crafter of flashy sentences but, more vitally, one able to breathe life into characters whose fates absorb us.
Ifemelu's observations on race in America may be too spiky for some -- well-meaning whites come in for some satire -- but "Americanah" never feels mean-spirited, and Adichie's gaze is broad enough to take in the frictions between black Americans and Africans, and among Africans themselves. The Trenton salon where Ifemelu has her hair braided -- which serves as something of a frame for the novel -- is a little Pan-African microcosm of nationalities and class differences. Another section of the book details Obinze's experience as an undocumented alien in London, benignly neglected by an old Nigerian friend who is now a successful lawyer married to an Englishwoman. Obinze, the author writes, "knew of the many stories of friends and relatives who, in the harsh glare of life abroad, became unreliable, even hostile versions of their former selves."
One of the ironies of immigration, Adichie shows, is that it leaves you a stranger in your native land, too. A return visit to Lagos leaves Ifemelu weirdly unsettled: "She had grown up knowing all the bus stops and the side streets, understanding the cryptic codes of conductors and the body language of street hawkers. Now she struggled to grasp the unspoken. When had shopkeepers become so rude? Had buildings in Lagos always had this patina of decay? And when did it become a city of people quick to beg and too enamored of free things?"
Adichie now splits her time between the United States and Nigeria, which affords her the perspective to see both societies with some detachment. "Americanah" not only makes Nigeria and Nigerians viscerally real to U.S. readers; she shows us ourselves through new eyes.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is part of a generation of young writers chronicling the African diaspora. Here are two with recent debut novels:
WE NEED NEW NAMES, by NoViolet Bulawayo. Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown; 296 pp., $25.
This novel follows the 10-year-old narrator, Darling, from a shantytown in Zimbabwe, where she and her friends steal guavas from the gardens of the rich, to "Destroyedmichygen" (Detroit, Mich.), where she starts a new life with her Aunt Fostalina. The author, born in Zimbabwe, has lived in the United States since she was 18 and won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing.
GHANA MUST GO, by Taiye Selasi. Penguin Press, 318 pp., $25.95.
Taiye Selasi's novel opens with the death of Kweku Sai, a Ghanaian surgeon who abandoned his family in the United States years before. Selasi was born in London, raised in Massachusetts and now lives in Rome. Her story "The Sex Lives of African Girls," was selected for "Best American Short Stories 2012."
Follow Tom Beer on Twitter at @TomBeerBooks.