Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Short Stories on Wednesday: The Thing around your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi made an impactful debut with her maiden novel Purple Hibiscus. She won the 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book. Then came the epic, Half of a Yellow Sun, set during the Biafran War. It won all sorts of accolades, including the Orange Prize for Fiction. Half of a Yellow Sun is one of my favourite works of contemporary literature and I was very impressed with Adichie’s narrative style (my review). So, when I spotted her latest book of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, at my local library, I snapped it up. I had hoped to finish the book by now and pick my favourite stories to write about, but life intervened and I’ve only managed to read the first two stories so far. But if these are anything to go by, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

Cell One.
Nnamabia is the wayward son of fairly wealthy family. Things have been getting progressively worse, with him even robbing his own mother’s jewellery for a couple of night’s worth of fun. It’s a dangerous time for the once-serene, university town of Nsukka. Cults and brutal daylight murders have become commonplace. One day, Nnamabia is arrested on suspicion of belonging to a cult. He protests his innocence, but is otherwise not unduly concerned about his predicament. His father’s position and money ensures that he doesn’t have to eat the terrible prison food, his cell mates seem to like him and the whole situation seems to have a certain glamour and drama to it which appeals to the cocky young boy. The only thing he’s really scared of is the dreaded cell one. Terrible things happen to an inmate unlucky enough to be dumped there and the prison authorities constantly use cell one as a threat to keep the inmates in check.

I liked this story. Mostly because the character of Nnamabia is pretty well drawn. You find yourself exasperated with him and concerned for him in equal bits. It’s a fairly straightforward tale and Adichie resists the temptation to push it over the edge and make a proper blood-curdler of it. This story was first published in the New Yorker so luckily it is available online here.

Nkem is the wife of a wealthy businessman and art collector. For the past several years her husband has been spending most of his time in Nigeria, visiting Nkem and the children in America for just a couple of months in the year. Nkem has gotten used to life in America and to the loneliness that is her constant companion. When the story begins, she has just heard that her husband has a girlfriend in Nigeria and they have moved in together. Memories, insecurities and desires come flooding back to her. In an attempt to imitate her husband’s mistress, Nkem hacks off all her hair. This imitation is echoed in all the ‘imitation’ artefacts that her husband collects. Nnkem loves those artefacts and their histories, even though she knows they are not the real deal. Finally, it is time for her husband to visit them again but Nkem cannot decide what to do or how to react to him.

Unlike Nnamabia from Cell One, Nkem feels like a more standard-issue character. It is difficult to sympathise with her or even like her very much though you are very obviously supposed to. This is largely because she doesn’t really let you into her head at any point and although you are told what she is thinking, you never really get a sense of what she is feeling. There are other things to like about the story though. It is well written and insightful, especially when it talks of the immigrant experience. Though Imitation is a good story, it stops just short of being great.


  1. I love Adichie and read this collection myself a few months ago. I actually really sympathised with Nkem, she was clearly very lonely.

    You've got some good stories coming up - I loved both A Private Experience and Jumping Monkey Hill.

    1. I look forward to reading them. Now if only I could find a minute to myself.

  2. I'm now curious as to what happens in Cell One.

    This looks like strong collection of stories. Even if the character in the second one you mention isn't as well developed as she could be, the premise is still interesting.

    1. The premise is interesting and the story plays out pretty well too. There are other, really powerful stories in the collection. Definitely a book I'd recommend.

  3. I'm afraid I haven't read anything by Adichi...:-/ Thanks for the link to the first story Che!...I hope to read that one within the week.