The Last Karankawas by Kimberly Garza

Another very fine one on Liz‘s recommendation.

The Last Karankawas has a lot going for it. And yes, for me personally a significant part of the appeal is personal: it’s set in Galveston, Texas (the beach town nearest my hometown of Houston, so a place where I spent a lot of time growing up), with ventures into the Texas Hill Country (where I lived last in my home state). These familiar locations are really well done (Garza’s bio note says “born in Galveston, raised in Uvalde,” giving her greater cred than my own): detailed, specific, absolutely recognizable. You know I’m a sucker for a strong sense of place in any location, but when that place also feels like home, you can bet this won my heart and gave me some homesickness (also a theme of the novel). So, sense of place and detailed execution of setting are objectives strengths here; my personal connections give me a more subjective love on top of that.

It’s a striking novel, not least in form. It could be considered a novel-in-stories: twelve characters each get chapters in their perspective (some first-person, some close third), plus the first chapter told in that unusual first-person plural “we” voice, by the Filipino-American women of Galveston’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church; one chapter focuses on two characters together. As the following image shows, the story centers on one in particular: Carly Castillo is the heart of the story. (I quibble mildly with this graphic because I think those people who relate to Carly through Jess, or others, should be graphically shown as connecting through those other names. Small issue.) Carly and Jess are the only characters who get more than one chapter’s perspective (and Jess only barely, with a second, very short one). Sometimes the connections back to Carly are tenuous, but they’re there. And the book ends with “A Glossary & Guide for the Uninitiated Traveler” to Galveston, which is a delightful piece of hermit-crab-style formal play, and includes the best definition of “state of Texas” I have ever read – hint: it includes multiple entries, some strikethrough text, “none of the above” and “all of the above.” To return to an earlier point, the evocation of place in all its complications and contradictions is absolutely one of my favorite things in literature.

Carly is born in Galveston to a Filipino immigrant mother and a first-generation Mexican-American father. Both parents leave when she is still small; she is raised by her paternal grandmother. We meet her first when she is a small child through the eyes of the church ladies where her maternal grandmother and mother attended. We know her as a teenager and young adult. Carly and the surrounding, orbiting characters are diverse, appropriate for the setting: Filipino and Mexican immigrants and their descendants, mostly. They work in nursing, in restaurants, on shrimp and oyster boats, or driving buses. They navigate class, race, immigration, family ties and ties to place; many wrestle with the opposing pressures to stay and to leave. The novel’s action comes to a head around 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which is catastrophic for Galveston and life-changing for our characters (and which I remember well in its lesser but still significant effects in Houston). It even visits with Isaac Cline, whom some readers will know from Erik Larson’s book Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. The title refers to the Karankawa Indians who were native to the Texas Gulf Coast region. Yes: there is a lot going on.

It’s a novel with things to say about many themes – class, race, immigration, family, place, community, coping with disaster – but also an emotionally evocative novel about people and relationships. Detail and voice are gorgeously rendered, including the tricks of bilingual culture. It is beautifully done and I won’t forget it anytime soon. Strongly recommend.


Rating: 9 pitches.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine’s voice is as powerful as you’ve heard, and Citizen is many things, in ways that can be challenging but also make it a rewarding meditation. A slim book, it rewards slower-paced reading, because there’s a lot to think about (and look at). I think I had envisioned a book of poetry in more traditional fashion, which would be challenging for me (because I find poetry difficult; I think I look too hard for literal readings). What I found was a little more form-bending, which mostly made it a little easier to take in. Lyric essays intersperse with poetry, and there are a handful of images of visual art as well, and references to other media, including YouTube videos and Rankine’s own “situation videos.” Predictably, I follow along better in the prose-ier sections than the poetry-leaning ones, and the former come first in the book, which I think made the transition a little harder. This is a problem on my end (when will I get over my fear of poems?). I sort of wish for a reading guide, although that runs the risk of prescriptivism.

Citizen is about race, or about race in America, or about what it is like to be Black in America. It relates macro- and microaggressions so that they build up: does the reader feel shocked? weary? angry? reading them? Well, maybe that’s the point. The small, everyday experiences have cumulative effect. The narrator spends a chapter (essay?) describing what it is to sigh incessantly, and be shushed in her sighs. She spends time observing Serena Williams: her play, the aggressions she experiences, when she does and does not react with outrage, and how the world reacts to her reactions. There is a chapter of scripts for Rankine’s situation videos, about which she says on her website: “It is our feeling that both devastating images and racist statements need management.” (I couldn’t figure out how to watch the actual videos on her website, although some are on YouTube.) There is a list of names of Black men and women killed by police; it fades out into gray text because the list is too long. The visual images that come in between the text sections might be said to offer a break, but it’s more like a different way of looking.

On the cover image, I most like these words from The New Yorker‘s review: “The book’s cover, an image of a black hood suspended in white space, seems to be a direct reference to Trayvon Martin’s death, but the image is of a work from 1993, two years after Rodney King was beaten senseless by members of the L.A.P.D. It’s called ‘In the Hood,’ and it suggests that racism passes freely among homonyms: the white imagination readily turns hoods into hoods. The image also makes you think of the hoods in fairy tales and illustrated books, part of the regalia of childhood. But its white backdrop recalls the haunting quotation from Zora Neale Hurston that keeps cropping up in Citizen: ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’ The hood becomes an executioner’s headdress, too.”

In the end after finishing the book and trying to review, I find my impression is more of poetry than of prose, because there’s an overall feeling even between the moments where I was frustrated because I couldn’t always parse the literal meaning. (Maybe Vince will show up to explain it to me.) Not for the first time, the poet is smarter than I am. But it was a hell of an experience, and I’d read more. Her reputation is deserved.


Rating: 7 lessons.

rerun: The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar

A deceptively quiet story, with swift currents running deep beneath its surface, considers the fate of an unprepared Mexican housekeeper in Orange County left to care for her employers’ young children.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Héctor Tobar’s second novel tackles the ambitious goal of characterizing Southern California’s multicultural schizophrenia and achieves it admirably.

Araceli is quietly comfortable in her role as housemaid to the Torres-Thompson household in Orange County, one of three Mexican domestics; but when the gardener and nanny are suddenly dismissed, she is puzzled to find herself expected to care of three children she considers strangers. Worse, she wakes up one morning to find both her employers gone with their baby–-leaving her alone in the house with two young boys. In desperation, she sets off with them on a daunting trek through diverse and unfamiliar Los Angeles to try to find their estranged paternal grandfather.

Tobar creates an intriguing juxtaposition of cultures, as the Torres-Thompson children are thrust into a huge, unfamiliar, multiethnic city. Most observations are from Araceli’s perplexed, amused, lyrically bilingual perspective. At other times, we look through the boys’ eyes, with all the wonder of the new, including evidence of poverty they’ve never before encountered. The older boy (age 11), in particular, has a unique way of clinically interpreting new experiences through books he’s read, imbuing the world with fantasy. The adventure with the boys is a comedy of errors–-Araceli becomes suddenly famous as a symbol of racial politics, and her fate depends upon forces outside her control.

The Barbarian Nurseries is a beautifully written, contemplative and thought-provoking view into Southern California’s diversity and contradictions, as well as a fascinating and well-presented story.


This review originally ran in the September 23, 2011 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


I decided to skip the post-dated rating on this one, as it’s been a while and I’m genuinely curious as to how it’s aged. I did call it one of the best books of the year. Anybody have a more recent reading to report?

Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning

This gorgeously evocative novel of the early-1900s American West takes on issues of race, class, labor and women’s rights via a remarkable young woman’s coming of age.

“Strikes are all the same. Same songs. Same reasons. Same hope and rage. In those years it was struggle and strife all over the mountains, in the cities and on the plains of the country, wherever there was industry or toil.” Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning (Whitegirl; My Notorious Life) is an expansive novel of passions: love, beauty, suffering; struggles for labor rights, women’s equality and the rights of formerly enslaved people. Set in the early-1900s Colorado mountains, this enthralling story stars Sylvie Pelletier, who travels west at age 17 to find the world broader, more lovely and more terrible than she’d imagined. Gilded Mountain tracks her coming of age and the troubles of her family and the marble miners of Moonstone.

Sylvie’s father, Jacques, is beloved by his family and his coworkers in the marble quarry, who call him “Frenchy,” but Sylvie’s mother fears he will again meet danger with his union organizing. Sylvie graduates from high school and apprentices as “printer’s devil” to the freethinking K.T. Redmond, who further shocks townspeople by being a newspaperwoman. As conditions in the mines deteriorate and K.T. nurtures Sylvie’s rebellious streak, the young protagonist is also invited into the household of Company owner Duke Padgett and his wife, the Countess. Their royal titles are self-assigned, but their wealth is real. The Duke’s son, Jace, becomes something of a romantic interest, but there is also United Mine Workers’ representative George Lonahan. Sylvie is torn between her principles and love for her family, her class and her boss, and the temptations of the other life. “I forgot to observe with the sharp eyes of a printer’s devil because my sight was dulled by sugar and awe,” she realizes. “My loyalties gnarled and snared me.”

Gilded Mountain is an ambitious novel, swelling to encompass labor rights (complete with Pinkerton Detective Agency goons), women’s rights, the societal role of the free press, the rights of Black Americans immediately following the Civil War, lynching, immigration and more. Starring real characters from history (union organizer Mother Jones, Belgium’s King Leopold II), it contains romance, historical fiction and inspired, high-minded thinking on important issues. Moonstone, Colo., is a fictionalized composite town, but its marble mining and the standard operating procedures of the Company are well based in historical fact. It also contains lovely writing about the natural world: “[T]he Diamond River overflowed its banks and rushed downhill, rooks sang in the trees, and leaves unfurled like new little salads on the ends of their branches. A corduroy of greens softened the hard folds of the mountains, and the meadows bloomed with swaths of blue columbine and dashes of yellow sneezeweed.” The result is a painfully beautiful novel of big ideals, heartbreaks and tragedies, sewn together by an admirable and unforgettable heroine.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 maraschino cherries.

Mother Country by Jacinda Townsend

To crib a disclosure I found over at Tor.com: “The author is a friend, but if I didn’t like her book, I just wouldn’t review it here.”


And what, after all, to make of a choice?

Shannon is an American woman traveling, for the second time, in Morocco with her husband Vladimir, “a man she felt she could never know from Adam.” They have their troubles: Shannon suffers severe chronic pain following a serious car wreck; she is hiding substantial student and medical debt from her husband, who is wealthy, distant and not terribly likeable. They are unable to get pregnant (for layers of reasons and with layers of results, including Shannon’s increasing baby fever). Shannon is privileged but more or less miserable, between the pain, her marijuana habit (hidden from Vladimir), the traumas of her own upbringing, and her desire for what she can’t have. She feels a bit lost, “but it was a nice lost, like being found was just around the corner in some dusty recess of the medina.”

Souria is a teenager from Mauritania, where she has been beset: her mother dead, she is kidnapped and enslaved; escapes, is enslaved again, escapes again; arrives in Marrakech friendless and pregnant, where the abuses persist until she escapes to begin a hard, simple life under her own power in Essaouira, “that frat boy of Moroccan cities” on the coast. She names her daughter Yumni, “good fortune. Success in this life,” and the child is happy and deeply loved.

To Shannon’s American eyes, however, she appears dirty and free-ranging on the sidewalks outside the shop where Souria works. And so the older, richer woman just… takes her. Vladimir’s money and their American passports transform Yumni to an American adopted daughter. The two women look remarkably alike; the child looks like her adoptive mother, such that the other parents in Louisville assume she is Shannon’s own.

I love this novel for its use of repeated lines and concepts, and questions about the nature of choice. The two threads, which eventually meet, are mostly told in the close third person perspectives of Shannon and Souria, although we get brief glimpses of Vladimir and of Yumni (later Mardi). These two main characters are well developed, but I judge them not equally sympathetic: Shannon’s life has certainly been difficult, but I judge her more harshly in the end than I do Souria, who’s had fewer options. There are parallels, though, and both women have the complexity of being neither martyr nor villain. The stories are well told, and the plot is heartbreaking, but the novel is character driven in the end, as well as being about those choices we are cued to in the first line. Secondary characters are delightfully drawn as well, which I always appreciate.

The title teases us, at first, to think about the Black American couple traveling to Africa, but it’s also a hint to themes about motherhood. The child at center winds up with something like two mothers, although a little short on fathers – her biological father is more or less a rapist and more or less unknown, and Vladimir is neither cut out for nor in love with the role. Shannon’s mother is not a benevolent force, and the loss of Souria’s mother when she was young is directly linked to what happens to her from then on. The country of Morocco is important as setting, as cultural backdrop, as a place where Shannon and Vladimir can take what they want. (I also happen to know it’s an important place in the life of the novelist, which maybe doesn’t figure in the novel, except that this writer knows her subject well.)

There are capital-I Issues here, like trafficking, colorism, American privilege, and meditations on motherhood. I don’t find the ethical question to be terribly puzzling – I think kidnapping is wrong whether it’s Souria or her daughter being taken. White Americans adopting African babies creates a problematic picture that’s too easy; I appreciate Shannon’s more complicated role as Black American, and with her own traumas and challenges. The male-female relationships are both beautifully drawn and upsetting in how universally problematic they are.

Jacinda Townsend has perhaps topped her lovely, musical Saint Monkey. This is a beauty, and timely, wise, and real.


Rating: 8 bears.

Imago by Octavia Butler

Following Dawn and Adulthood Rites is Imago, the final book in this trilogy, which I am sorry to see the end of. We’ve shifted narrators again: Lilith brought us through book one, then Akin for book two, and now we meet Jodahs, another first of its kind. Like Akin, Jodahs is a child of Lilith’s family, and her own (human-born). When Jodahs reaches metamorphosis, when Oankali and constructs (Oankali/human offspring) reach sexual maturity, a surprise: instead of becoming male as was expected, Jodahs begins to become ooloi, the Oankali third gender that is neither male nor female. Ooloi have extensive abilities to heal and changes themselves and others, and it had been thought still too risky to introduce human-born ooloi at this stage of the two species’ trade. Jodahs is a mistake, and a potentially dangerous one. But it quickly becomes clear that in its uniqueness it may have some special abilities to offer as well.

Imago is told from Jodahs’ point of view, as it struggles with its own needs and the challenges of coming of age. One early solution that is offered to the problem of Jodahs’ very existence is that it be exiled to a ship away from Earth; but Jodahs is a native of Earth, and quite reasonably pushes back against this idea. It’s the first of its kind, not wanted where it is from, and threatened with being sent “back” to a place it is not from. (The parallels to slavery are unmistakable.) It has overwhelmingly strong urges, toward sexual and other connections, but its people don’t want to allow it to pursue these urges, which are natural but also unprecedented (because Jodahs is unprecedented). I am still marveling at Butler’s worldbuilding here, that I’m so absorbed and bought into the rules of her invented peoples. It’s lovely.

There is commentary on human nature: the old human contradiction, as Oankali see it, of intelligence with hierarchical behaviors. Humans among themselves struggle with racism, xenophobia, sexism and sexual assault, and homophobia. When faced with Oankali – that is, something different, non-human – humans frequently react with fear and hostility. Even when they feel drawn to an ooloi, for example (and the ooloi have this power, to make themselves irresistible), they can feel revulsion mixed in. The trilogy has much to say about xenophobia and race, colonialism, agency and freedom of choice, and also gender. I love that the ooloi have to repeat that they are not male and female, not both, but a whole other thing. They still get misgendered and mis-pronouned. Jodah is asked if it wants to be male: “Had I ever wanted to be male? I had just assumed I was male, and would have no choice in the matter.” It’s also about community-building in ways that I love. Building communities, families and societies is just as hard in Butler’s fictional world as it is in any other dystopia I’ve encountered, real or fictional (because people). This is all good commentary on human tendencies, while at the same time being very fine, escapist fiction.

For more, especially some excellent thoughts on the book’s title, check out Erika Nelson’s “Playing Human” essay at Tor.com.

I love this series and think everyone should read it.


Rating: 8 tubers.

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler

Book two in the Lilith’s Brood series (following Dawn) is Adulthood Rites. We get a new protagonist and first-person narrator, although Lilith is still an important figure. The worldbuilding remains thorough and engrossing, and I’m still all in for book three to come.

In this novel, we are back on Earth, which the Oankali have worked to make safe for human occupation. Humans live there in two kinds of communities: either side-by-side with the Oankali or without; the latter group are known as resisters. The Oankali have engineered it so that Humans (I capitalize as Butler does) cannot reproduce without their intervention, so the resister communities are childless (although very longlived, also through Oankali intervention; this allows the narrative to work for decades, with Humans who remember life “before” but remain childless). Their inability to reproduce defines and obsesses the Human resister communities. The hybrid communities have children, known as ‘constructs,’ blends of Human and Oankali, born to both Human and Oankali mothers. The narrator is Akin, the first male construct born to a Human mother: Lilith. This first male-construct-born-to-Human is an important and risky step. The Oankali are nervous that he will carry too much of the Human Contradiction: intelligence and hierarchical thinking.

The baby-obsessed resisters are inclined to steal construct children. They are also inclined to hate them, because they don’t look Human enough. (This feels like plenty of metaphor to start with, but it goes on.) Akin is kidnapped very young by Human resisters who both crave him (baby!) and revile him (for his Oankali characteristics). This book is primarily the story of his own conflicted relationships with the two parts of himself. And, of course, we get to see Human survivors of an apocalypse do what we more or less expect them to do. They weaponize, rape, kidnap, and kill each other. It’s sobering (although I don’t find it the least bit surprising). Akin will wind up with a unique perspective on humanity, both as the first of his kind and because of his lived experience, and in the end he may hold some power over the future of humanity.

Post-apocalyptic narratives like this have become commonplace since this series (Adulthood Rites was originally published in 1988), but even in a now-crowded field, Butler stands out. The different traits of the Oankali, and their earnest failure to understand humanity’s protests against them, offer plenty to think about. To have a child who is a mix of both types is (again) ripe metaphor, and a fascinating opportunity to think about blended identities. Lilith tells Akin,

Human beings fear difference… Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need to give them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek different and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior… When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.

Which of course is commentary on xenophobia, but also on that sense of having opposing types in one person (which I think we can all empathize with, one way or another).

There is also plenty to consider about family and social structures. Construct children have five parents (at least until something happens to them): male and female Human and Oankali parents, respectively, and an ooloi, the genderless Oankali who makes fertility possible, who ‘mixes’ the baby. “All interconnected, all united–a network of family into which each child should fall.” And Lilith’s Brood is centrally concerned with ideas of agency, consent, free will, and personal choice. It’s an enormous amount of philosophy to take on, for a book billed as science fiction… or perhaps (as next week’s author interview will point out!) it’s a falsehood and a shame that we expect less from sci fi.

Killer reading. Butler’s a master.


Rating: 8 guns.

Dawn by Octavia Butler

I thought Kindred was good, but Dawn has blown me away. The former was an excellent and thought-provoking book but (at least at this distance of memory) not something I quite got lost in; this one offered a new level of world-building that took me away from my own life in a way I love. It’s still an outstanding work of craft, and offers plenty of serious issues (see the discussion questions at the back of my paperback edition), but it also captured my imagination and took me out of myself. Very special.

Lilith wakes up in a plain room devoid of color and objects, accompanied occasionally by disembodied voices, fed a bland stew or cereal in edible bowls, driven a little mad by isolation; and this happens over and over again. Eventually she passes enough tests to meet her captors, who turn out to be nonhuman alien “people” who inform her that she is not on Earth – Earth as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war, which she remembers – but on a ship. And, long story short-ish, she is among the few human survivors who will eventually be sent to Earth to repopulate it. But there is a price: the alien people, the Oankali, want something in exchange for shepherding humans out of near-extinction.

Lilith is a special human. She’s been identified as having the right combination of qualities to lead and teach humans how to move forward. This role will come with its own frustrations and burdens. It is the Oankali’s belief that humans have “a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics,” which alone would have been advantages but together may doom humanity. These are intelligence and hierarchical thinking. Lilith’s troop of humans have these characteristics, of course. They are also traumatized by war, and the challenges of survivalism include some tendencies to violence, for one thing.

This is a story about the way humans behave, and about relationships, between humans and also across species with the Oankali. In some basic ways, it reduces to a story about people, which I appreciate. It also considers some more unusual questions, especially because the Oankali have some very novel qualities, skills and abilities, and ways of relating to each other. Sex and gender appear in new ways here, which is thought-provoking. Lilith is a Black woman, which has some implications for her place in a human society, because even post-nuclear-war we haven’t lost our societal issues and prejudices. Dawn deals with questions about agency and self-determination; love, sex and gender; and the persistence of old hangups. I was intrigued and engaged by the Issues, but I was most pleasurably lost in the story and the novel world and people.

Very much sold on this series – I’ve ordered books 2 and 3, and can’t wait.


Rating: 9 breadnuts.

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I was blown away by this novel, which absorbed me totally in the life of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who lives in the United States for some years during and after college and then returns home to Lagos. It is large and sweeping in its considerations of cultural differences and personal relationships but also retains its focus on one life.

Ifemelu and her high school boyfriend Obinze have a deep and intense relationship, and no doubts about one another, but they both know – as everyone around them seems to know – that it is necessary to get out of Lagos and into the West, where there will be more opportunity to learn and study and earn money and build a life beyond the limitations of their home. Ifemelu is able to get to the United States to attend college in Philadelphia, where she struggles to scrape by, and to navigate a race and class system that is new to her. She has one strong family connection in the states, her aunt and younger cousin Dike. Her path is not easy but she eventually establishes a proper and “successful” life for herself, finally in New Haven, which is where we meet her in the opening chapter. Meanwhile, Obinze is unable to get papers to the United States, eventually traveling to London and overstaying his visa to live a hidden, undocumented life there. Each of them faces unique dangers, and after a particular trauma, they fall out of touch. The novel follows Ifemelu but occasionally checks in with her childhood sweetheart until the two eventually reconnect.

Americanah is first a story about people. It’s also about race and class in America, and about Nigerian and American cultures, and others (especially the multitude of “Non-American Black” cultures Ifemelu encounters in this country). While stateside, Ifemelu makes a career for herself as a blogger about race in America (she is clear that she wasn’t black till she got here). But it’s also just people, in the loveliest, messiest way, the ways in which we can be ugly and beautiful and complicated. There is some romance; but I take issue with the materials that describe this as a book about Ifemelu and Obinze, or an ‘intergenerational’ story. Although it’s true that Obinze is present for much of the book, and that there are multiple generations in it, I would say that this is a book firmly about Ifemelu, and the life she leads and everything it exposes about race and class and culture – Ifemelu as an individual, not a symbol or a device. This book is beautifully written and completely captivating; it’s the quickest nearly-600-pages I’ve taken in in a long time.

Ifemelu’s blog does provide Adichie with a mechanism for communicating pointed and explicit observations about race; but this is still far from polemic. Ifemelu mostly tells anecdotes from the world she encounters, which is a very approachable or accessible way to have these conversations (points to both Ifemelu and her creator). “…she began, over time, to feel like a vulture hacking into the carcasses of people’s stories for something she could use. Sometimes making fragile links to race. Sometimes not believing herself. The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.” Now, look, I have no reason to conflate the character in these sentences with the writer Adichie, but I do think any time a writer writes about writing, we should consider that relationship. And I will certainly say that I relate to Ifemelu’s challenges here as a writer.

There is plenty of heaviness here, but it was also a pure delight to spend time with Ifemelu, a gorgeously self-assured, thoughtful character. While there is much here that is culturally foreign to my experiences, I always found it easy to sink into and to follow. I strongly recommend Americanah and admire Adichie.


Rating: 9 fried plantains.
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