Sunday, August 23, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Thing Around Your Neck

At Home and Abroad by Neha Bhatt/New Delhi

The Thing Around Your Neck stays with you from beginning till end, and beyond. It’s unlikely it would take more than a few pages for you to be drawn in by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s casual, free-flowing narrative style. Her collection of 12 elegant short stories has made an utterly intimate space. The stories inhabit Nigeria and America, nestling among the growing human aspirations and inevitable frustrations, which is what ultimately connects the people of the two countries.

It’s a fine balance the Nigerian author writes with. As heartwarming as each of her people are (they never seem to be merely characters in a story, for she writes as if they were her people, lives she has carefully observed; and many are of Igbo descent, an ethnic group that she belongs to), there is a quiet pain in equal measure.

This is 31-year-old Adichie’s third book. The first two, released within the last few years — Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun — are prizewinning works.

The title story of her new collection, “The Thing Around Your Neck”, works wonderfully as a metaphor for the rest of the book, and delicately so. Told in second person (a technique that is incredibly delightful to read here, and thankfully she repeats it in another story in this collection), this story has a young Nigerian girl who moves to America in search of better financial prospects at its heart. The move isn’t at all what she imagined it might be, yet, in despair, she’s finally able to let go, of that thing around her neck that has troubled her for so long.

This is a recurring theme throughout the book: Nigerian families and their fragmented lives, their past and unnerving present, based firmly within but sometimes very far away from their homeland.

Adichie has a way with words, a flawless style that is so alive it breathes. She could be telling you these stories at an informal gathering over tea. Her tone is consistent and thoroughly engaging, and lyrical in both familiar (the less privileged of her countrymen are fascinated by the West, much like us Indians) and unfamiliar (the immigrant life) surroundings.

She expertly masks the most painful and intense experiences with her gentle, no-fuss manner, her perceptions being remarkably sensitive and surreal. Her stories stay aloof of any stark, negative connotations, lending a unique, positive quality to a book with a theme such as this. There is an understated and unaffected poise, with a confident, soothing strain running through each of the unusual situations at the crux of these stories. And these are tales that you would want to hear and relish, perhaps reading just one at a time before moving on to the next.

For that reason it’s difficult, and perhaps unfair, to try and pick a favourite, or even to summarise any story from this collection. It does, however, appear that young Nigerian women — on the brink of something new, exploring, learning, growing — are the author’s favourite protagonists, and are most endearing at that, perhaps because they are the ones most full of hope.

In “On Monday of Last Week”, a young woman, in America and thus far from home, experiences an inexplicable thrill at the admiring, if fake, glances of another woman. Another Nigerian woman in America, in “Imitation”, decides to pull the plug on her supposedly cheating husband who visits from their homeland only a few months a year.

In “A Private Experience”, a medical student’s unruffled life unravels in a matter of hours when she hides with a Muslim woman during a riot in Nigeria.

These are stories that span minutes, sometimes decades, and run a little more than 20 pages each, but will last a great deal longer in the reader’s mind.

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