I only bought this because I was searching for Achebe's "There Was A Country" (at that time unavailable on Kindle) and Amazon suggested I might like it. I'm so glad I did; Adichie is a brilliant writer, and having read and devoured this I immediately went and bought her (then) two full-length novels (she's since written another one), and in short order she became my favourite contemporary author.
This collection shows her at the peak of her powers - her characterisation, scene-setting, storytelling, her ability to make you *care* about someone you only met a couple of lines ago, are without equal. All her novels are full of characters who appear for a few pages, a brief flicker of interaction with the main storyline before vanishing (sometimes for many chapters on end, sometimes forever), and that's a skill she uses to maximum effect here, the short story the perfect format for Adichie to display her brilliance.
I know I'm gushing with praise here. I can't help it, she really is that good. Read this book. Read it now.
The order of the stories is interesting, and I wonder how many people might be put off by the sample - "Cell One", which opens the collection, is the most uncompromising thing here, dumping the reader straight into a stark, tightly-wound tale of middle-class family breakdown and prison brutality peppered with Igbo phrases and Nigerian slang and references to things like cults and the harmattan. Adichie has talked in lectures about growing up reading Enid Blyton, packed with alien cultural references; the first few pages of "Cell One" provide the Western reader with a similar experience, a similar expectation to get with the programme straight away. Do persevere, it is absolutely worth it. Some of the stories are more shocking ("The American Embassy" and "Tomorrow Is Too Far" both pack a wounding gut punch whose effects you'll never quite shake off), but most of the drama here is internal, vignettes of intense domestic dramas and questions of identity in Nigeria and in the diaspora. Not one of them is forgettable, staying with you to be savoured and reflected over even as you inevitably rush to start the next one because you can't wait to hear more.
Picking out highlights is a waste of time because there's not really a weak link in the collection. The title story, from which several themes are picked up in Adichie's third novel Americanah, is probably the best short story I've ever read, told entirely in the second person and painting just about the most convincing character portrait you'll ever see, is a magnificent centrepiece to the collection, but in truth pretty much every story here would be enough to carry a whole volume. "Jumping Monkey Hill" is a fascinating one; it's too tempting to see the central character, a Nigerian writer attending a pan-African writers' workshop hosted by an insufferable white English academic at a hokey safari-themed resort in South Africa, as Adichie herself. I'd love to know how autobiographical it really is, because the British characters come across as (literally) unbelievably patronising, and yet the host's attitude to the heroine's workshop submission - a true story from her life with a couple of key details changed - is also to call it far-fetched, as if to warn the reader not to make the same mistake with Adichie's own work. The final story, "The Headstrong Historian" is just Adichie showing off, a sublime piece of fan fiction set in the timeline (and written in the style) of Achebe's "Things Fall Apart", centred on a background character from the original novel, and done with such staggering aplomb it takes the breath away as you first realise what she's doing and then stand stunned as she carries it off.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie hasn't long turned 30; not only is she one of our best young writers, I don't think the "young" qualification is needed. This is such a good introduction to her work, I already know I will buy every book she ever writes.