Monday, April 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Thing Around Your Neck

By Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie

Reviewed by Bernardine Evaristo, The Times

This stunning collection of short stories confirms Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's position as one of Africa's brightest new literary stars. She is the author of two important novels about the Igbo people of Nigeria - Purple Hibiscus and the Orange prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun - yet her writing is even more poignant when applied to the short story: crisp, succinct, vigorous and loaded.

Adichie was born and raised in Nigeria and now lives in America. These slice-of-life stories straddle both countries and dissect the imbalance of power and moral corruption in a wide range of relationships and settings. The first story, Cell One, shows a descent into lawlessness and police brutality that we've come to expect depicted in Nigerian literature. Yet in Adichie's hands it is seen afresh. The writer's cool, intelligent, observant, female antennae are sensitive to the subtleties of how people behave, and why, in this story about the interplay of motherhood and teenage waywardness. Set on a university campus, its young men belong to gangs who steal, fight and kill: “... eighteen-year-olds who had mastered the swagger of American rap videos were undergoing secret and strange initiations that sometimes left one or two of them dead on Odim Hill”. The female narrator's teenage brother, Nnamabia, is arrested by the police after one such gang has run riot, shooting students and escaping in a professor's car. As his mother's spoilt only son, it's unclear whether he is guilty of the shooting but he is imprisoned without charge and left to the mercy of corrupt policemen. It is to Adichie's credit that her writing is so understated that at the end of the story the reader is left to imagine what happens rather than being force-fed the gory details. Her endings are always unpredictable and suspenseful.

In A Private Experience two women take refuge in a shack in the middle of a riot carried out by Hausa Muslims against Igbo Christians in northern Nigeria a few years ago. One is an Igbo medical student, the other a Hausa market-trader, and their brief interaction affirms the power of humanity to resist and survive tribal warfare. All Adichie's stories are suffused with evocative atmospheric detail. The riot-torn streets outside the shack “smell like the kind of sky-coloured smoke that wafts around during Christmas when people throw goat carcasses into fires to burn the hair off the skin”. And there is plenty of quirky detail too. What do these two refugees from the riot talk about? Well, the Hausa woman thrusts her naked breasts at the medical student with the plea, “My nipple is burning like pepper”.

In her stories about immigration to the US, Adichie highlights the adjustments required when you arrive in the world's most powerful and pervasive country. She invites us to ask whether it is really worth it. In Imitation, a bored Igbo housewife, Nkem, has been deposited in a smart American suburb by her businessman husband while he lives in Nigeria. Despite being part of the “Rich Nigerian Men Who Send Their Wives to America to Have Babies” league, she is still a powerless “Bush Girl” who gets her English tenses mixed up. But finding that her husband has installed a mistress in their Nigerian home galvanises her inner warrior and she takes control of the situation, rendering him mute and compliant.

Patriarchal attitudes are kicked in the groin in several of these stories. The Arrangers of Marriage shows a new wife arriving in Brooklyn to be treated by her dictatorial husband as something merely to use and abuse. She plans to leave him. In The Thing Around Your Neck an “uncle” who has enabled a young woman to live in the US expects sexual services in return. She refuses. Edward, the organiser of a workshop and prize for African writers in Jumping Monkey Hill, is pompous, lecherous and patronising. He also considers himself the arbiter of what is authentic in African fiction - despite being white, English and clueless. He gets his come-uppance.

Adiche pokes fun at US middle-class parental angst in On Monday of Last Week. Kamara, the nanny of the son of a neurotic father, describes the contents of their fridge: “The shop shelf was stacked with plastic bottles of juiced organic spinach. Cans of herbal tea had filled that space two weeks ago, when Neil was reading Herbal Drinks for Children, and before that it was soy beverages, and before that protein shakes for growing bones.” Yet the story also touches on lesbian desire. When the mother of the boy finally appears, Kamara falls prey to the power of the woman's ambiguous, flirtatious sexuality. A closet gay Nigerian man makes an appearance in The Shivering. Such sightings are rare in African fiction.

While there is a sense of anger at the injustices that Nigerians have to endure in their home country, these stories also question whether life in the US is any better. Many of the immigrants' stories are driven by loneliness and alienation and some do decide to return home - for better or worse. Adichie offers insights into both worlds and, like all fine storytellers, leaves us wanting more.

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