Monday, September 07, 2009

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Format: Hardcover, 240 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

Pub Date: May 22, 2009

Price: $29.95

After having amazing success with her first two books, "Purple Hibiscus" and
"Half of a Yellow Sun" (which won her both the Orange Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom and a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant here in the United States), it seemed inevitable that Chimamanda Adichie would soon launch a book of short stories. "The Thing Around Your Neck" is its intriguing title and it contains 12 short stories some of which are set in Nigeria (the author's home country) and the rest in the US focusing on the Nigerian immigrant experience, the fragile balance of family life and the cultural fissures manifest among Nigerians settled in America.

Maybe it's just the short story format that I am not partial to, but many of the stories, although very readable, failed to engage me in the way Chimamanda's writing normally does. Well, perhaps, I shouldn't be blaming the short story format because I didn't have any difficulty enjoying Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth" or Daniyal Mueenudin's "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders", but I found myself just very mildly engaged in many of the stories from "That Thing About your Neck". Come to think of it, using JL's collection of stories as a yardstick is probably being very unfair. Most anthologies of short stories from a single author are mixed news, at best. If one, two, or perhaps three stories succeed, the reader feels the collection worthwhile. JL's book was an exception where all of her 8 stories were wildly praised by readers and critics alike...definitely a triumph!

Ofcourse, there are flashes of brilliance in "That Thing Around Your Neck", but not nearly enough to make me go you MUST read this book!!! Having said that however, I would like to point out some of the stories that you might enjoy reading. The title story for instance, which implies the choking isolation of a Nigerian girl who relocated to the US from Nigeria only to find that her new country is nothing like she expected, is one which astutely explores the alienation and loneliness that an immigrant feels. She does find love with an Africa-philiac man but cannot figure out if he loves her for her or if he loves her for being an exotic African woman. She notes, "white people who liked Africa too much and those who liked Africa too little were the same-- condescending". With this storyline Adichie is also turning the lens in on Americans and their rather mixed relations with Africans.

Then there is "The Arrangers of Marriage," where an orphan is forced to marry a Nigerian medical student doing his internship in the United States. Again, like the girl in the title story, this protagonist also finds things are not as she was led to believe, for her new husband had omitted to tell her family that he was already married to an American woman (for a green card) and was yet to be divorced from her. In creating protagonists like these Adichie is keeping it very real because many immigrants leave their homeland thinking "the grass is always greener on the other side" only to find out that it isn't necessarily so. The frightening thing for such immigrants is that once they leave, Nigeria is no longer home either. Home is now a gray space between the two.

"Jumping off Monkey Hill" is apparently autobiographical and the setting is a writing workshop for promising African writers but lead by a white scholar, an apparent "expert" on Africa, who criticizes a story with a homosexual theme put forward by one of the participants saying "homosexuality stories weren't reflective of Africa". Which leads to the question...what is an African story? What is perhaps noteworthy is that Adichie has three stories in this collection with a homosexual theme!

My favorite story of the bunch was the last one, titled, "The Headstrong Historian"...I simply love how Adichie used this one family's history to illustrate how the advent of Christian missionaries and the free education (in the white man's language) they offered the children of the Africans severed the people from their faith, history and culture. A very moving story. I've linked to the story in the "Newyorker" magazine so you can enjoy it as well!

A summary of this book inevitably makes it seem bleak, but because these stories are shot through with grace, elegance and empathy they leave the reader with a positive, rather than negative impression. Adichie's language is clean and crisp, with a musical quality that I have enjoyed in her previous novels and which I am pleased to note continues over to this one.


karmic said...

Hi Lotus, Happy labor day to you. Hope things are well with you. Thank you for posting this review. And pardon me if this is a naive Q, are there a lot of short stories from writers from Africa? Yes I betray my lack of knowledge here for I am not as well read as you are. :-/.
Sorry that this book by Chimamanda did not engage you as much. While JL's short story book was almost universally hailed, it is possible it spoke more to us as JL's stories revolved around the Indian immigrant experience as well.
Also a few of JL's stories were linked.
Was that true of Chimamanda's stories as well?
I liked the sound of the title story.
"The Arrangers of Marriage" does strike a theme heard before. Does she imbibe that story with a unique African flavor?
"Jumping off Monkey Hill" ..ironic isn't it that the "expert" on Africa happens to be white. Then again it is possible that it could be true. I wonder if that was true in real life too? A q for Chimamanda I guess?
I will surely have to find the time to read the "The Headstrong Historian". Thank you for providing a link to it. Again similar to that from other cultures where native languages and customs were decimated.
I am sure you noticed this, do you think Chimamanda using these familiar sounding themes took away something from making this a powerful collection of stories? Or do you think that that was not the issue, that she does bring her own unique perspective to these, but it is the stories that are not as strong as you would expect?
I think reviewing short stories is not an easy task, and I have to say that you did a wonderful job of crystallizing these stories for us, and convey the spirit behind them. Truly enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for sharing.

ImageNations said...

this is the book I would be reading (starting from this evening) after I have just finished 'Purple Hibiscus', hence I do not want to spoil my taste and read the review but I would come back to it. Looks like its working well for Ms Adichie.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj!!!

Howdy! You asked: Are there a lot of short stories from writers from Africa?

I am sure there are, but few writers are made available to a western audience...I can think of Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe), MJ Vassanji (Kenya),Leila Aboulela (Sudan) and quite a few more, but to really get a good grasp on African short story writing you might want to visit the Caine Prize homepage:

No, none of Chimamanda's stories were linked...and whether I enjoyed them or not, I found many had the power to stand alone. I think it had to do with the way she quickly sketches her characters and yet, at the same time, gives them (and the story) quite a bit of complexity and depth.

Yes, I would say that all of her stories have strong African, Nigerian really, colours. And I like that because I read her books in the hope that I will be better educated about Nigeria, but in an entertaining way. I would read her books even if she resorted to generic tales, but, for me, a huge part of the appeal is the fact that her stories have to do with Nigeria and the Nigerian people. Thanks for that question, btw.

Yes, about the white expert, no volume on African stories would be complete without a reference to colonialism and two of her stories deal with that unfortunate theme.

Sanj, I am unable to put my finger on what exactly is that disappointed me a little about this collection. Many were good individually but as a collection I am unable to get too enthused about it. Perhaps because they were not consistently good or riveting. Few writers can match Adichie's storytelling skills, it's just that she produces more compelling work when she gives herself time and space.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Nana!

I loved "Purple Hibiscus"...I just realized I typed Purple Orchid in my post, sheesh! Will have to go correct that!

Hope you enjoy the short stories. Will you let us know?

karmic said...

Lotus, thank you for the response. I have heard of Gappah (thank you!) and Vassanji (thank you again!). Should have thought of Vassanji, but for dome reason did not. Thank you for telling me about the Caine prize as well. *Sigh* How I wish I read more!
Thank you for telling me why these stories disappointed you a bit. Take care!

Stefania - The Italian Backpacker said...

I'm waiting for this book to be delivered at home by post. I hope it will arrive soon, I really can't wait. I loved her two novels and I hope these stories won't disappoint me. I will re-read your review after having finished "The Thing Around Your Neck" and I'll see if I agree with you. In a way I can understand how you feel about Adichie producing more compelling work with longer fiction: there are certain writers who are masters of the short story and others who do better with novels.

Anonymous said...

I too enjoyed Purple Hibiscus and want to say I'm excited about this new publication. Yes, very little from the African continent (or Asian!) makes it to the US and it's good to read what I can. Yet, there is still my avoidance of short stories. Lotus, maybe it is the un-eveness of the stories you mention. I think it would be a real challenge for someone who is used to writing novels to be able to condense everything effectively into a short story. They are two different skill sets.

Zibilee said...

I had heard that this book was more uneven than her previous works, so I wasn't sure it would be for me, but your review pinpoints several stories that I think I would like. I am going to give this book a try. I liked your thoughtful review.

apu said...

Oho. Someone else who feels the same way as me. I approached this book perhaps with too high expectations, because I had enjoyed Half of a yellow sun so much. I did feel let down. Somehow the stories seem 'over-written' and somewhat if she was aware of writing for an alien audience... Not that it was bad, just not as good as I'd expected.

ImageNations said...

@Sanjay...I read and review mostly African books at my blog. You are Also know that, though colonialism is one of the commonest themes of African literature it is gradually changing. Besides, there is no status quo for a novel to be African. Most people have come to expect this theme such that if it is missing then the whole book is missing something African. That's not true. Africa has come a long way from that. However, I don't fault authors who still write about slavery for South Africa has not been freed for more than 10 years. Besides, why wouldn't we write about something that lasted for hundreds of years and persisted into the 20th century?

J said...

I feel like Achede's books take awhile to maybe that's why short stories aren't the best medium for her. I'm tempted, but if I read them, it will be a library thing.

shantiwallah said...

How great to read a review like this. I saw Chimamanda at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival earlier this year and was enthralled by her readings from the book. However, she seemed such an interesting person and a great presenter that it may have coloured my idea of the stories. I bought three books at the festival and my friend bought three, including this one, and we have yet to swap. Hmmm... maybe I'll think again about which one I read first! Thank you for your review.

ImageNations said...

now that I have read and reviewed 'The Thing Around Your Neck' I have come back and read your review. It is an objective reflection and I enjoyed reading it.

Lotus Reads said...

@Stefania ~ Hey! I love it when other readers are reading the same book too. It is so much more fun to compare notes than it is to just write a review or summary. I cannot wait to hear what you think!

@Campbele ~ You are so right about short stories and novels involving two different skill sets. Some authors are just better at the longer novel while for others, short stories is their forte. It is rare when an author can pull off both successfully! One author that does come to mind is MG Vassanji.

@Zibilee ~ Thank you! I will definitely look for your thoughts on this book after you've had a chance to read it!

@Nana ~ I will let Sanjay know. Thanks so much for your helpful comment.

Lotus Reads said...

@ Apu~ Thanks a million for weighing in on this. Glad you feel the same way I did. After I finished writing the review I was kinda hoping I hadn't been too harsh on Adichie...but I really haven't enjoyed these stories like I thought I would.

@J ~ You're right....she's the kind of author who takes her time setting up her story. The short story medium requires you write a complete story with a beginning, middle and an end, in a space of about 30-50 pages, no mean feat for someone who needs atleast double that to just introduce the characters.

@Shantiwallah ~ Welcome! Adichie has great personality! I went to meet her in Toronto and was completely charmed by her. You know what? If you haven't read her other work I am quite sure you will be charmed by these stories. I find them lacking mostly because I find myself comparing them with her two novels and they just don't measure up. If I were you, I would read the short stories first and then go on to read "Purple Hibiscus". Save the best "Half of the Yellow Sun" for the last! :)

Lotus Reads said...

@Nana ~ Have you reviewed "That Thing Around your Neck"? I would love to read it if you have. And thanks for coming back here to let me know.

Bill Weye said...

Thanks for the review! Looking for more information, I found this great interview with Adichie on a radio show.

Thanks again for turning me on to Adichie!

Jes said...

I gave you a blog award:

Lotus Reads said...

@Bill ~ You're quite welcome and thank you for turning me on to that radio interview!

Shaista said...

Hi Lotus, thankyou for this review. Like you I am not partial to short stories either. Dad keeps tying to get me to read Jeffrey Archer's collections... er... I think not ;)
Adichie's second book really rocked me. I don't know if I mentioned but I'm unable to read anymore, so I listen. As a result, certain audiobooks like Khaled Hosseini's 'Kite Runner' and Adichie's 'Yellow Sun' were read with Afghani and Nigerian accents respectively, and the impression is twice as powerful and immediate.
Do you ever review audiobooks? Just hoping :)

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Diane Dehler said...

Thanks for the reading list, Lotus.

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Paslaow said...

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