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book review

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Lagos on May 2, 2013.Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Ifemelu, a Nigerian student recently arrived to study in America, is helping her friend, Ginika, also a Nigerian, who has been in America for some time, shop for a dress. It is a gruelling process: Ginika is indecisive, and they're assisted by a clerk who unfurls before them swaths of sparkling, incomprehensible fabrics, while Ifemelu gropes to understand how such shapeless sacks could accompany such outlandish price tags. After Ginika settles on a dress, the two women approach the cashier.

"Did anybody help you?" the cashier asks.

When Ginika says yes, the cashier inquires if it was Chelcy or Jennifer. Ginika scans the store, but both women have disappeared.

"Was it the one with long hair?" the cashier asks.

"Well, both of them had long hair."

"The one with the dark hair?"

Both of them had dark hair.

"It's okay, I'll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission," the cashier says.

"Why didn't she just ask, 'Was it the black girl or the white girl?'" Ifemelu says after they have left the store. To which, her friend replies, "Because this is America. You're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things."

Even in this small interlude of awkwardness – a minor scene in the book – you can feel the thrumming pulse of Americanah, the masterful new novel by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who demonstrates an MRI-like insight into the subtleties and hidden machinations of class and race – the unspeakable antimatter of North American life – keenly observing, in her words, "that fine-grained mark that culture stamps on people."

Adichie is no stranger to touchy subjects. In what is perhaps her best-known novel, the electrifying, Orange Prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun, she examined the intertwining ambitions and indiscretions of a group of Nigerians picking up the pieces of the doomed Biafran revolution. The book drew instant praise from the late, great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe: "We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers." Then in 2009, Adichie published The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories that saw her expand her setting to America, gesturing toward the grander canvas she would paint with Americanah.

The story itself centres on Ifemelu and Obinze, childhood sweethearts struck by a heady love in late-eighties Lagos, but who are soon estranged, by global forces as much as by their own romantic ineptitude. Ifemelu moves to America to study at an eastern university, and Obinze is later forced to seek his fortune in England, because post-9/11 America is no longer accepting male immigrants from Nigeria.

Confronted by an American reality vastly different from the Cosby Show version she had expected, Ifemelu meets great hardship and alienation in her new home. She finds her student housemates baffling, a clutch of slovenly, sweatpants-wearing girls more interested in beery frat parties than their studies. "How did they know when to laugh, what to laugh about?" Ifemelu muses over their incessant enthusiasm.

Here she begins to make observations on the conundrums of America – "It's one of the things she has come to love about America," Adichie writes, "the abundance of unreasonable hope" – where everyone is grasping to orient themselves on the unspoken matrix of class, religion, region, nationality, education and race.

But Ifemelu especially puzzles over race: how certain African Americans romanticize Africa, having never been there, or how certain Africans immigrants do not speak to her because they would rather not be seen as one of those who have failed to leave Africa behind, or how most black women somehow intuit that relaxing their hair will improve their chances of getting a job, and she starts writing a successful blog about her observations.

Obinze is forced to take menial jobs in England, seeking a sham marriage in order to secure a green card, while Ifemelu, unable to be paid above the table with only a student visa, is driven into nanny work to pay her outrageous tuition. It is from this position in a wealthy American household that she offers her fresh perspective on everything from American child-rearing to charity.

Rendered perfectly are the cringeworthy presumptions of moneyed, well-meaning Americans like her boss, Kimberly, and Kimberly's brother, Curt (whom Ifemelu dates for some time – to everyone's horror/joy), who brandish their long-distance compassion for the global poor like liberal merit badges. "Some of the people we met had nothing, absolutely nothing, but they were so happy," Kimberly says of a trip she had taken to India. Through Ifemelu's eyes we see how reductive these sorts of statements are, how ascribing "simple" happiness to an entire population is nearly as ignorant as saying they are savage or stupid – as Rudyard Kipling once infamously described Africans: "half-devil, half-child." But luckily Adichie treats these well-meaning armchair philanthropists with empathy and humanity.

Maybe it is the sheer glut of dinner-party scenes that leave this novel feeling more classically Victorian than any I have read in recent memory. In both America and England, as well Nigeria, diners discuss politics and art and food as though in a novel by Brontë or Dickens, while money and race and romantic imbroglios simmer beneath the table and among the servants (who in America, Ifemelu wryly observes, are called caterers).

Then there's the Middlemarch-ian marriage plot, the series of vastly differing suitors that both protagonists try on and turn aside. Adichie really sparkles when writing about the self-delusions of love, the quick burn of romantic novelty, and does much with the differing complications of Curt, a wealthy white man with a guilt complex, and Blaine, a fiery African-American professor well versed in theories of cultural dominance and oppression.

But more than it is some socio-political screed on the horrors of racism or the durable bloodstains of colonialism, this is a true and wrenching story about people. People trying to nurture love and avoid poverty and raise healthy children, people frustrated and limited and betrayed by forces beyond their control as much as they are by the human verve for ignorance and greed and intolerance, people who, despite all of this, find comfort in the connections they forge with one another.

This is exactly what the great English novels of the 19th century did so well: They attacked the carnival of hypocrisy and cruelty that was Victorian England, they humanized the poor and decried the imbalanced crappiness of patriarchal marriage, all while retaining the moral murk of real human experience and providing just enough intrigue to captivate the reader. And with Americanah, Adichie has written a contemporary update, a kind of Victorian Lit 2.0. It's a book that leaves you feeling grateful that even though in America "you're supposed to pretend that you don't notice certain things," Adichie is just too perceptive and brave not to.

Michael Christie is the author of The Beggar's Garden.