Remember 2009, when we all fell to our knees and wept because the last Harry Potter book was published? And then J.K. Rowling had THE NERVE to write a not-Harry-Potter book in 2012? And a lot of people kind of trashed the book?
Well, I finally got around to reading it, and you know, it did not deserve the backlash it got. It took a while, but The Casual Vacancy proved to be quite the page-turner, though nowhere near on the level of the HP books. It did demonstrate Rowling’s continued preference for atmosphere over economy, and to reasonably good effect, since the novel, like her previous works, depends largely on the creation of a world we can fully imagine.
The world of this novel is Pagford, a seemingly idyllic English town that has just lost its favorite citizen, Barry Fairbrother, to an aneurysm. Fairbrother had been preparing to make a case against Pagford’s dissociating, via zoning law, from the Fields, a depressed neighborhood that many of Pagford’s residents consider a blight on their town. His death makes the outcome of this conflict more ambiguous than it had been, considering that the town now must elect a new Parish Councillor to replace him. In the balance hangs the fate of a methadone clinic that supports the rehabilitation of several Fields inhabitants.
Though she maintains a third-person omniscient voice, Rowling jumps from person to person in perspective. This means the first fifty pages or so require some patience, as the jumps often occur just as we’re settling into one storyline. However, the plot quickly pulls together as we see the desires that unite or divide various characters. Frequently, these desires are fueled by hatred, fear, or misunderstanding, and Rowling’s contempt for many of the personalities she brings to light is absolutely cutting. By the end of the book, we share her contempt, and also cringe inwardly as we recognize some of the worst aspects of humanity in the citizens of Pagford: self-righteousness, narrow-mindedness, and a refusal to take responsibility. These are trashy people masquerading as benevolent upper-middle-class patricians, and they make for a luridly fun little read.
At least in this novel, Rowling retains a tendency towards being heavy-handed, but then, we never read her for her subtlety, anyway. I do wish this propensity hadn’t weighed down what is otherwise a merciless and memorable ending, but I’m not at all sorry for the time I spent with this book, and I look forward to reading The Cuckoo’s Calling as soon as I can get it off hold at the library. ::narrows eyes at unknown people ahead of me on the hold list::
To use my sing-song Ace Ventura voice: Looooved iiiit! Americanah was just so smart and so easy to read. To start, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes one of the most basic concepts of critical race theory incredibly accessible to those who may just be wanting to pick up a great novel. Ifemulu, a young Nigerian woman who comes to the United States as a student, suddenly discovers that she is “black,” a label she would never have applied to herself back home. While in the U.S., Ifemulu finds herself compelled to write about the experience of being “black” and the racism she encounters, and so starts a blog she names “Raceteenth”. In it, she explores the many ways we construct race here in the United States.
I loved the book for Ifemulu herself, who is whip-smart, outspoken, and witty, as well as for the way in which it features race without isolating it. Adichie skillfully shows the ways in which American culture makes it impossible for race not to affect so many aspects of one’s life. (White privilege is, in part, the ability to be largely unaware of how race affects one’s life.)
But Ifemulu’s conflicts are not all race-driven. As a woman in her 20s, her identity is in flux, and we see her try out different aspects of herself to see which most accurately represents the whole of her personality. She does this through her writing, yes, and her career, but also through the lovers she has, and most prominently through the cities she lives in throughout the United States and Nigeria. The title of the book, “Americanah,” is what Ifemulu’s friends and family call a person who has become Americanized. It’s sometimes used as a compliment, and sometimes not quite.
In between chapters about Ifemulu, we read about her ex-boyfriend, Obinze, who is trying to make a life for himself in England. Though his experiences aren’t as engaging on an emotional level, they do provide insight into what immigrants face when trying to incorporate themselves into a new country.
Don’t let its intelligence intimidate you- Americanah is often as touching and funny as it is enlightening.