For all sad words on tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘it might have been.’ – John Greenleaf Whittier
The air in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s envy-inducing book, Americanah, is suffused through with saudade.
Saudade is a Portuguese word without a direct English translation, but you probably know it: a sense of wistful nostalgia for something that probably never existed; the what-ifs and maybes that accompany a breakup.
This sense of longing – for a past since relegated to hazy, rose-tinted prologue; for a future perpetually just out of reach – crowds the oxygen from every open space in the book. Many of the characters are caught up in a near-constant fog of saudade, like the minor character Kimberly:
Ifemelu sometimes sensed, underneath the well-oiled sequences of Kimberly’s life, a flash of regret not only for things she longed for in the present but for things she had longed for in the past.
Ifemelu, one of the two main characters, begins her life in Nigeria and emigrates to America in search of a better education and a better life. She finds both, but is drawn back to Nigeria, saudade in tow:
She thanked him, and in the gray of the evening darkness, the air burdened with smells, she ached with an almost unbearable emotion that she could not name. It was nostalgic and melancholy, a beautiful sadness for the things she had missed and the things she would never know.
Ifemelu’s first love, Obinze, could not follow her to America, and ends up in London, where he also sees saudade in others:
It puzzled him that she did not mourn all the things she could have been. Was it a quality inherent in women, or did they just learn to shield their personal regrets, to suspend their lives, subsume themselves in child care?
Adichie is an enviable writer with a powerful and distinct voice; my Kindle is heavy with paragraphs highlighted both for their virtuosity and my edification. She masterfully weaves together the stories of emigrants and those who are left behind, bringing to life the bustle of Lagos and the dark gray winters of the American east coast. This is a book well worth your time.