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The Thing Around Your Neck Paperback – 23 Feb 2017
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‘“The Thing Around your Neck”, with its warm and sympathetic heroines and its finely cadenced un-American English prose, demonstrates that she is keeping faith with her talent and with her country.’ Lindsay Duguid, Sunday Times
‘Her particular gift is the seductive ability to tell a story…Adichie writes with an economy and precision that makes the strange seem familiar. She makes storytelling seem as easy as birdsong.’ Jane Shilling, Telegraph
‘Adichie’s spare, poised prose, the coolness of her phrasing, ensures these scenes are achieved without melodrama. And though she writes very specifically about Nigeria, the stories have a universal application.’ FT
‘An elegant collection. From beginning to end the prose is serene and the characterization deft.’ TLS
‘The powerful themes close to Adichie’s heart shine through, but never over-shadow writing of clarity and brilliance.’ Aminatta Forna, Guardian
About the Author
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. Her first novel ‘Purple Hibiscus’ was published in 2003 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Her second novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her short story collection, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, was published to critical acclaim in 2009. Her work has been selected by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and the BBC Short Story Awards, has appeared in various literary publications, including Zoetrope and The Iowa Review. She won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant in 2009, and in 2010 appeared on the New Yorker’s list of the best 20 writers under 40. Her third novel, ‘Americanah’, was published to widespread critical acclaim in 2013. She lives in Nigeria.
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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.
This collection of short stories have a recurring personae dramatis: Nigerian women. The stories portray the lives of Nigerian women in Nigeria and the United States with themes ranging from arranged marriage (The Arrangers of Marriage) and homosexuality (The Shivering) to the impact of colonialism on identity (The Headstrong Historian).
My favourite story is Tomorrow is too Far. It is written in the second person (you) and is about the death of a boy, Nonso. At the start, we know that Nonso's sister (the main character) is jealous of Nonso because he is the the favoured child of their Grandmother. With her cousin's connivance, they scare Nonso, who falls off a tree and die. Eighteen years later, they (sister and cousin) meet to reflect on Nonso's death. More than a reflection of the events, the story subtly questions the system of primogeniture that is practised in Nigeria.
Chimamanda Adichie is clearly a gifted writer (I loved Half A Yellow Sun). However, some of the characters were too flat to be believable. For example, Grace, a daughter of a missionary who challenges colonial notions of African primitiveness. As a Nigerian, I could identify with the character, but I could not appreciate her in the context of a short story; Chimamanda skipped too many layers of history and meaning, rendering Grace terribly unbelievable.
Chimamanda is no Langston Hughes, one of my favourite short story writers (see the Ways of White Folks). Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this collection of short stories and hope that she can improve her art. The Thing Around Your Neck is no history lesson; there is no overt agenda or lecture here. If you want to kick back and enjoy a nice read on a Sunday, then I would recommend this book; it deserves three stars.
Each story is different, each well worth reading, many with a mixture of sadness and redemption, and most linger with you after finishing them.
There are quite a few stories here where which could her been developed into whole novels, and some suffer a little for being too short to be fully satisfying.
Still, very enjoyable and well worth reading.
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