I don’t know how so many people came to love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Americanah. I couldn’t get past the first 500 words. The author showed great command of prose, but the start promised a narrative full of shallow, judgmental, and contradictory observations.
In the opening sentence—62 words long—we learn that “Princeton in the summer smells of nothing.” There isn’t much for the reader’s imagination in this, except to wonder: did the narrator miss the smell of a summer rainstorm, the inevitable scent of fresh-cut grass or a particular flower on the breeze? Which other of the five senses could she have explored to give her readers a toe-hold into the rarified air of Princeton in the summer? We got “nothing”.
Next we learn that the narrator likes the post office “…where effusive staff bounded out to greet” patrons. This must be hyperbole. Where in America are postal workers “effusive”? And in the summer, when it’s hot enough to melt chocolate in the narrator’s purse, we are expected to believe these workers “bound forth” to accept the mail? Are they Springer Spaniels?
It’s reasonable of course for the narrator to wonder: “…why there was no place where she could braid her hair.” Except that, just a moment ago she noted, “It was unreasonable to expect a braiding salon in Princeton—the few black locals she had seen were so light-skinned and lank-haired she could not imagine them wearing braids.”
So far we have an odorless town, no braiding salons, and Springer Spaniels in charge of the mail.
Waiting for the train she observes a fellow traveler eating an ice cream cone and notes, “She had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men, especially the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public.”
Gasp! Eating ice cream cones in public! I could not see past this inexplicable judgment. Ice cream cones for breakfast might be irresponsible; in bed slightly less so; in the bathroom—irresponsible and disgusting. But why should American men (or women for that matter, or adults of any nation) be considered irresponsible for eating an ice cream cone? Does her judgement allow for mitigating circumstances: is it ok if the adult is with children? How does she feel about smoking in public? And what private ice cream cone saloons does the narrator propose as a solution to the—turn away!—eating of ice cream cones in public? Alas, none was forthcoming, not soon enough to keep me reading, anyway.
The final nail in this 500-word coffin was the narrator’s observation that the hair on the head of the nearby male was “Swept forward, a comical arrangement to disguise his bald spot. He had to be an academic, but not in the humanities or he would be more self-conscious.”
But isn’t it self-consciousness in the first place that would cause this cone-licker to sweep his hair forward? Perhaps she means, “self-aware”. I don’t know. At this point, it was easier to simply close the book.
It isn’t lost on me that this novel was honored with many awards and accolades, and therefore pleased a lot of important and well-placed people, many of whom are probably smart and authoritative about books. In addition to winning the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and the The Chicago Tribune 2013 Heartland Prize for Fiction, it was named one of The New York Times’s Ten Best Books of the Year and rated highly by other prominent outlets.
Nor is it lost on me that just because this book was selected for notable recognition does not mean it rises above its own flaws. To be fair, this book may be great and wonderful in a lot of new and fantastic and exciting ways. But give me five reasons to dislike the narrative in the first 500 words and I’m turning back to the world of Indie lit with all its gritty promise of unrecognized talent.