Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of 12 short stories, is a frustrating book, at least for this reader. One-third of the stories are so outstanding in both insight and depth that I found myself making mental comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri, in my opinion one of the most outstanding current writers in the genre. A second third produced a neutral response — usually because the themes were similar to those of the outstanding stories but the execution was lacking. And the final third (what I would call the “political” stories) were unrewarding at best, lacking all the strengths of the better stories.
I should admit that I am not a good reader of short story collections, which may well have had an effect on my opinion of this book. Usually when I sit down to read, it is for a period of hours, which means I read several stories at once. Even though I did manage to discipline myself to take a week to complete this book, the empty echoes in those neutral stories may well have been influenced by reading the good ones so recently.
Let’s start with the disappointing stories (Cell One, A Private Experience, Ghosts and The American Embassy) so we can save the good stuff for last. While this was my first exposure to Adichie, her last novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. Adichie spends her time in both Nigeria and the United States and that novel does deal with the civil conflict and its fallout that has plagued Nigeria. I don’t know much about the country but discovered in critical opinions from readers that I respect on various forums that they found that part of the novel uninformative and wanting. So I came to this book with some warning (I don’t think bias) about that trait.
All four of the stories that I didn’t like are about innocent individuals affected negatively by that conflict or what followed. In each case, I found not only little that expanded my limited knowledge, I didn’t learn much about the characters or their experience. I certainly appreciate the author’s desire to recount that story — I can’t help but wonder if her own history gets in the way of her obvious writing talent when she turns to those issues.
Where Adichie is strongest is when she explores the experience of the dislocated Nigerian woman in a Western culture (hence the comparison with Lahiri). Consider the opening of the title story, The Thing Around Your Neck:
You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.
They trooped into the room in Lagos where you lived with your father and mother and three siblings, leaning against the unpainted walls because there weren’t enough chairs to go round, to say goodbye in loud voices and tell you with lowered voices what they wanted you to send them. In comparison to the big car and house (and possibly gun), the things they wanted were minor — handbags and shoes and perfumes and clothes. You said okay, no problem.
That dream does not last long. The “uncle” who sponsored her expects sex as part of the deal. The narrator ends up in Hartford “because it was the last stop of the Greyhound bus you got on.” Another dream starts when she hooks up with a senior at the state university who has Boston Brahmin roots, but seems to know a fair bit about Africa. That too runs into problems (male readers should be warned that sympathetic male characters are not a feature of these stories) and the heroine decides to return home.
The story, told in the second person almost as a memory, is compact, with both tender emotions and perceptive observations. The inevitable sadness has overtones of sentimentalism but only that. It is impossible not to care for the narrator and her experience.
Another strong story, Imitation, does have a similar theme — Nkem is new to America, her husband Obiora a “Big Man” who divides his time between there and Lagos. He also divides his affection, as an intruding friend can’t wait to inform Nkem on her return from Lagos:
“…I wouldn’t tell you sha, I know men and their ways, but I heard she has moved into your house. This is what happens when you marry a rich man.”
Without spoiling the story, Nkem is a fighter. It is definitely worth the read.
As mentioned before, the middling stories tend to be less well-written versions of these two. In one of my favorite stories in the book, Jumping Monkey Hill, Adichie goes in a completely different, more complex direction.
The story is about the African Writers Workshop, held just outside Cape Town at a resort where the only blacks are seven of the eight participants in the workshop, sponsored by the British Council and chaired by Edward Campbell, an old Africa hand with an accent the British would call “posh” and who “could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety”. It is hard not to believe that this story isn’t based on a personal experience.
Like most writers’ workshops, participants are expected to spend part of the time writing, then read their work aloud, then take part in a critical review from the other participants. Also like most workshops, each has his or her own agenda, from fawning attention to the leader to agressive isolation.
Odichie captures this well — I laughed several times and it brought back not entirely fond memories of writing, editing and managing workshops that I have attended. She also spices up the narrative with excerpts from the story that the narrator writes and eventually presents to the group. “The whole thing is implausible,” Edward said. “This is agenda writing, it isn’t a story of real people.”
When I reread the story before writing this review, that quote brought me up short. Am I as a reader guilty of exactly that same response with the stories that I found wanting? I don’t think so, but…Cell One was published in the New Yorker; The American Embassy was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2003.
So just as the Orange Prize jury reached a different decision on Half of a Yellow Sun from the comments of readers whom I respect, perhaps you might like this collection better than I did. That’s why I decided to describe the book as “frustrating” — the strong stories show that Adichie is a writer of considerable talent but I don’t think it is consistently shown in this collection.
(An excerpt from Cell One can be found here).