Posted by: Jeff | February 25, 2011

Book Review: “The Thing Around Your Neck”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I don’t read a lot of short stories, and even when I do I don’t usually purchase them specifically, choosing instead to peruse offerings in magazines and on the internet.  So it is a testament to how much I loved Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun”, that I even thought about purchasing her collection of short stories.  I’m so glad that I did.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a magnificent epic that vividly captures the lives of those caught up in a momentous event in oft-overlooked history: the brutal and violent Biafran War.  Choosing to focus on the motivations, morals, and trials of three people – a young houseboy, a meek and conflicted British national, and a strong, independent woman – Adichie weaves a wonderful story of trust, love, and dreams in the midst of war.  It’s an ambitious feat, and Adichie rises to the occasion, showing a remarkable ability to control a narrative of epic historical proportions while using prose that breathes life into deep characters.

In the stories that compose “The Thing Around Your Neck,” Adichie wields her words for an entirely different task – the creation of short, vivid vignettes about Nigerian women in everday life, both in Africa and the United States.  The 15-20 bursts of her short stories are drastically different than the story that winds through the 450 pages of “Half of a Yellow Sun”, but her characters are no less real and detailed.

Perhaps unfairly described as the heir to Chinua Achebe, Adichie is much more than a great Nigerian author.  Adichie is such a wonderful writer that in the space of just a few short pages, the reader is immersed in the life of each of the women in these pages, briefly lost in a world that is every bit as real and tangible as those that require many more pages to construct.  As Jane Shilling remarked in her review of this collection, “A fortunate few writers possess the rare but unmistakable quality of inspiring a reader’s confidence within a few sentences.”  Adichie is certainly to be counted among these few.

She’s a wonderful writer – one of the most gifted in contemporary fiction – and each of the stories contain their own wonder: the silent suffering of the woman who stands in line outside the American embassy in Nigeria hoping to gain asylum from the men who killed her son, the fearful comfort a Christian woman takes from a poor Muslim who helps her hide in the midst of ethnic riots, and the emptiness of the woman, who, after receiving a coveted visa to the United States, discovers that the American dream is not one easily achieved, something that family back home could never understand.  These are real stories designed to capture the real conflictions and emotions of fictional characters.

The only weak story in the collection is perhaps not coincidentally the only one told from a male point of view.  Adichie’s ability to write strong and intelligent female characters stuck in structural malaise is formidable, and her best excerpts of writing all focus on the unique problems faced by the women in her narratives.  So much so that with each of these women – from “Half of a Yellow Sun”‘s Olanna to all of the women in this collection – one can’t help but feel that they are a reflection of part of Adichie herself.

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