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British actress Olivia Williams with sabre fish.
Accents are to actors what vocabulary is to writers — that is, a quantifiable means of judging artistic accomplishment. Meryl Streep’s facility with accents is sometimes used to praise her performances in the same way you sometimes find inexperienced reviewers celebrating Michael Chabon’s use of exotic words. Neither aptitude has all that much to do with the power of Streep’s or Chabon’s work, but they are easy to point at when you don’t really know how to describe the power itself.
Accents mean a lot in the audio version of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, “Americanah.” Adichie tells two stories, about two Nigerians who leave their homeland in their youth, one for America and the other for Britain. Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love in high school and seem destined for marriage, but when Ifemelu wins a scholarship to a university in Philadelphia and the difficulty of getting by there makes her feel that she’s turned into another, lesser, person, they drift apart. The novel opens with Ifemelu, seemingly well set-up with an academic career and an African-American boyfriend, deciding she wants to return to Nigeria, where she hopes to see Obinze again.
The “immigrant novel” has become a major subgenre of literary fiction in the past 20 years (although you could say that Philip Roth began tackling many of the quandaries of integrating into a not-especially-welcoming mainstream society decades ago). By now, the novel of immigration has a well-developed set of tropes and too often new forays into this territory seem like more of the same, however much the characters’ particular origins may vary. “Americanah” feels fresh, though, not least because of Ifemelu’s determination to go back to the Old Country, a choice filled with land mines, both predictable (Obinze has a wife and child) and not. Has she become too Americanized to feel at home in the home she longs for? Is she expecting to find the Nigeria she left 13 years ago unchanged?
I can’t honestly tell you how accurately narrator Adjoa Andoh reproduces the various complex accents required by Adichie’s novel: Nigerian “bush,” Nigerian “town,” the accent of a Nigerian recently arrived in America and trying to sound American, the accent of a Nigerian who has succeeded in sounding fairly American, British white working class, a Nigerian who’s lived in Britain for a while and has a British wife, Americans and Britons of Caribbean decent — it’s enough to make your head swim more wildly than Ifemelu’s does when she steps off the plane in the U.S. one summer to encounter a humid heat worse than any she encountered in Africa.
Ifemelu herself deliberately swaps accents. When she runs into an old friend in Maryland, she slips back into the clipped, emphatic rhythms of Nigerian English, but when talking to American service people she makes sure to roll her Rs and smooth her vowels. Her decision to roll back into Nigerian English most of the time is the first sign — before she even realizes it herself — that she doesn’t intend to stay.
Andoh (a Ghana-born British actress familiar from television roles there and the narrator of Alexander McCall-Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” books) handles all of this with aplomb. What matters less than the precision of her accents is the way she uses them to convey Ifemelu’s experience of the people talking. Many of her Americans speak in nasal bleats that are hilariously exaggerated, but that’s how they sound to Ifemelu. Other more sympathetic stateside characters, like the adoring but clueless white man who becomes her first American boyfriend, are less cartoonish. Andoh tweaks it up or down, depending on how much Ifemelu (fairly or not) perceives the character to be a “typical” member of a certain group.
The result is a delightful cacophony of voices, full of sharp-edged observations of American racial mores and a mournful fondness for a Nigeria that disappoints her children over and over again. Andoh’s bravura turn here accentuates the epic quality of Adichie’s wonderful novel and underlines the pervasive sorrow of how easy it is to leave, and how very difficulty it is to find your way home.
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