Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Review: The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My friend Francine, who sensibly chose to read English at Cambridge, knowing my insatiable appetite for novels, asked me to taste and see that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was good five years ago. I devoured Purple Hibiscus. Sated and ravenous, I only half heartedly digested Half of a Yellow Sun, because I felt that it did not reflect the brilliance of the first novel- maybe precisely because Purple Hibiscus could not be matched at all in the way it presented the fragrance, colour and texture of Nigeria.

I must admit that I was not a fan of short stories before this collection as I have always felt that they were perhaps a lazy man's (or woman's) way out of writer's block. Because I enjoy breathing and living and feeling characters I also dismissed them because I felt that there was no time to do so in a short story. In The Thing Around Your Neck, Adichie proved me wrong. She catapulted my prejudices towards the short story upside down, deconstructed my theories inside out, and then proved me wrong again.

Adichie in this collection is simply brilliant. Astonishingly, all of her stories are accessible and beautifully written; they are told with poise, in elegant prose, just as one would expect from a contemporary griot. I expected some "old ladies mutterings" of extravagant and unnecessary details, rather like lashings of mache and parsley over perfectly good chicken from an overenthusiastic chef, but this was pleasantly absent; this is a woman who is not wasteful with her ingredients. Her stories, all unapologetically Nigerian in background, context and flavour, are intentionally international and modern in their treatment of universal themes of displacement, grief, wonderment and struggle. Her characterisations are believable; her stories never end with the exclamation marks of implausibility, and her style is almost perfect: dutiful and unlaborious. Adichie's economy of words is deliberate and yet, she still manages to march along with a rhythmic cadence. I do not know how she does it.

The Nigeria Adichie presents is not the stereotypical Nigeria that you see in documentaries that typically depict Lagos, of lives obviously so poor and futile and desperate on the streets of an overcrowded city pregnant with corruption. It is not the Nigeria of Nollywood with Mr Ebu who deals in juju and first wives who cast spells on mistresses. Nor is it the new Nigeria that is now presented on the television programmes of the BBC and CNN- teeming with possibility (ie oil), just outside BRIC in terms of development, couched in fancy names such as "premium emerging markets". Adichie’s Nigeria is somewhere in between.

Her Nigeria is the Nigeria of contradictions- of academics whose wives visit them in their sleep and tickle their balls, of wives of rich Nigerian Big Men who are jealous of their husband's young lovers; of polygamous, monogamous, gay and lesbian Nigeria, of traditional and Pentecostal Nigeria, of matriarchal pride and incredible sexploitation, of the Hausa and Igbo, of ordinary men and women, cold immigrants and warm home. No topic is off bounds and through this collection we are brought along to witness the astonishing resilience and weaknesses in the cultural, racial and sexual dichotomies and to some extent, trichotomies that exist. This is second and third generation Nigeria, the Nigeria of the movers and shakers and doers and thinkers- a Nigeria which is staking its claim in the world. Adichie's protagonists' commentaries are sometimes humorous and irreverent, sometimes wise but always timely:

“There are things that are good if you don’t know”

“He spoke about a god, who had come to the world to die, and who had a son but no wife, and who was three but also one. ...Some walked away, because they had imagined that the white man was full of wisdom”

“Are you writing about your father?... NO because she had never believed in fiction as therapy. The Tanzanian told her that all fiction was therapy, some form of therapy, no matter what anyone said”

If this book had a fault, it would be that Adichie comes across as determinedly feminist. Her female protagonists are powerful, cunning, smart, and are able to form bonds that are natural, easy and strong. Womanhood and womanly love seem to feature as an unspoken undercurrent. Most of the men appear as side dishes, certainly dispensable, most times inspiring reproach: they are often impractical, predatory, fumbling and two dimensional. This is not to say that her approach is without merit, as it is possible that through her eyes, we are perhaps witnessing this malaise in male/female relationships and her challenge, therefore, of the natural hierarchy and of the status quo.

Although I am a natural sucker for an immigrant story and therefore love "Imitation", "The Thing Around Your Neck", “The American Embassy” and "The Arrangers of Marriage", my favourite story is "Jumping Monkey Hill" simply because of Adichie’s voice in it, and her method. She uses and improves the Shakespearean technique of the play within a play to construct a story within a story and then through this, manages to reveal yet more stories with grace and believability. Each of the stories resolve themselves, yet most of them stay with the reader, leaving us hungry for more.

It is perhaps telling that I have written this review before I have even finished the book. I felt compelled to share it. I am nervously on the last nibble "The Headstrong Historian". It already reminds me of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.


  1. Kima

    Your review has definitely roused my interest. I'll check her out. I especially love the fact that she is a young contemporary author taking on what seems to be cultural taboos.

  2. Hey Kima to make such a comparison to Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" a staple which no doubt should be a part of every literature fanatic's diet ( I recommend a strict reading of at least once a month) has me even more intrigued about the book or perhaps it is a compliment to the succinct articulate way in which the review was written :) I hope you are aware of the potential of your writing and plan to pursue it with vigor!

    With regard to your comment on short stories/essays I have to say that I am happy that Adichie could convince you differently for short stories are as much' literature ' as books are. Shakespeare's schtick started in the form of short stories / play's and at literature's peak it was short stories not books that cemented one's notoriety with the pen( I remember reading somewhere). The beauty and briefness of a short story well written like those of Kafka , Gogol, Poe, Chekhov, Achebe, Fitzgerald and most recently Lahiri and Zadie Smith is just as enjoyable as digesting the deliciousness of classic novels. Though I've always believed that a well written short story is much more difficult to achieve for having been re-reading Kafka's short classics and fighting through Roberto Bolano's hefty '2666' you'd understand why I say this (lol). Kafka's short stories are just as complicated as Bolano's wholesome chapters though Kafka had (significantly) a lot less room to work with.

    When you have some time delve into the world of short stories / essays / novellas start of with Dickens and work your way up through the centuries! :)

  3. I actually think Adichie faltered a bit in the last story so I take back my comparison to Achebe. But still a good read!

    I was never in doubt that they were literature, I just have never found a collection I enjoyed reading as much as a novel. Miguel Street was probably the last collection of stories I enjoyed- and that was because there was a common thread. In fact three of the last 5 books I read were short stories: Uwem Akpan "Say you're one of them" (recommended by Oprah and rubbish!) and An Elegy for Easterly and have probably read most of Dickens already :( .Really into a phase of African literature now after my Polish and Eastern European phase ;) I am now reading Ishiguro's Nocturnes. Will let you know how it goes. You are right though it pays to open up to new things!