First published July 26, 2009 in Next Newspapers. Reproduced here for archival purposes only.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s latest work, The Thing Around Your Neck is a mostly delectable feast of twelve short stories. This is a good book, I heartily recommend it. Adichie has a great gift: she is the nettlesome sibling from hell, sitting there demurely and ever so sweetly, painstakingly pointing out all the pimples on your beautiful face. Subversion lurks every where in Adichie’s stories. The resentments, the rage, the anger, smooth like refined sugar bleed gleefully out of Adichie’s stories and we are all sweetly diminished. When the stories are good, they are like elegant buses, gently letting you off at the curb of Wonder and easing back into traffic carrying their mysterious burdens to somewhere. The reader is left behind wondering about these things around the neck.
Maybe I am suffering from Adichie overdose, but Adichie is becoming fairly predictable to me. I can now recognize her stories even in the dark. The thing wrapped tightly within Adichie starts slowly at the beginning of each story and rises with quiet, oh so quiet indignation and gently retches all over everyone. What do I think of the stories? The title story The Thing Around Your Neck is formulaic and improbable in parts. But it is okay, it is still a good story. The story The Arrangers of Marriage is about a woman joining the husband (a medical doctor) in America in an arranged marriage. I had previously read it somewhere. I enjoyed it again especially when I came to my favorite lines: “My husband woke me up by settling his heavy body on top of mine. His chest flattened my breasts.” After two readings, it is still a funny story. However, The Arrangers of Marriage risks being stereotypical and improbable. But it is the truth. The Shivering is an intimate dialogue with heartache and suffering in the shape of two gentle souls talking through their losses ease the reader into the mysteries of sexuality and religion. A couple of stories break new ground on gay and lesbian issues in Nigeria. Adichie’s stories remind us that we are still dipping our squeamish toes in the sum-pool of our sexuality. Some of the stories in this book do come across as dated, especially the ones about immigrant life in America. In America no one gawks at my nappy hair anymore, few people ask me where I learned to speak English, I definitely do not remember anyone asking me lately if I had ever seen a car before I came to America. It is a good thing; America is browning and now we are the ones asking the silly questions.
Adichie is becoming afflicted with a keen sensitivity that she wears loudly on the skin. It is a double edged sword. In the story Jumping Monkey Hill about an encounter with a patronizing and condescending white professor, there is this aching over-awareness of the self and it unnecessarily politicizes Adichie’s stories. There is the over-analysis of people and their motives. Injustice sprays a mist on the writer’s skin, making the writer hyper-sensitive. Sometimes things happen. There are assholes in every culture. Adichie’s stories are populated by mostly male Nigerian jerks. Which begs the question: How much of our intolerance for our own assholes is really self-loathing? Self loathing is fast becoming an African obsession. Our lives are carefully and painstakingly measured against a lily-white otherness. We are always falling short and the neediness fuels our neurosis. The danger of this compilation of stories – is that it comes off as a narrow look at the lives of complex people. It may be the truth; Adichie may have drawn hasty conclusions. How much of this is Adichie’s fault? We will never know; exaggeration is a useful tool in storytelling. And Adichie wields this tool expertly.
I hate to say this, but when it comes to short stories, Adichie is no Jhumpa Lahiri. Where Lahiri offers crisp freshly minted prose in every piece of her latest short story collection Unaccustomed Earth, Adichie is uneven, delivering stories that range from the stodgy (The American Embassy) to the truly inspiring (The Headstrong Historian). What emphasizes the unevenness of Adichie’s stories is that the book is actually a compilation of several past works, an archival of sorts. All in all, This Thing Around Your Neck is really about our shared injustice colluding to distort our history. This book is a humanized narrative that is deeply affective – for the most part. Enjoy the book; it is life staring at you.