The Thing Around Your Neck (Fourth Estate)
The Thing Around Your Neck, the new collection of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, confirms her place in that select group of contemporary African writers who can thread a sentence while telling a great yarn.
Adichie’s debut novel, The Purple Hibiscus, won the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Overall Winner, Best Book). Her second novel, the monumental Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007. It’s not mere hype, I hope, when I argue that Adichie (born in 1977) is probably the best African writer of her generation.
Most of the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck are told by a crisp voiced narrator; sentences unwind languidly yet steadfastly, every story always moving towards a climax. Adichie achieves with plain yet rich use of language what lesser writers hope to achieve with obscure floridness.
The collection begins with ‘Cell One”, a story set in Nsukka Nigeria’s university town about Nnamabia, the narrator’s brother, a deliquent blessed with good looks. Nnamabia once faked a break-in into his family’s home, from where he carted away the family silver and gold.
The last story in the book is The Headstrong Historian, my favourite. (I hope I won’t give away too much of the plot) It’s an inter-generational story that begins around the 1800s and strides into the last century.
Reminiscent of Achebe’s use of Igbo idioms, the story features Obierika, a loving husband who refuses to marry a second wife when his wife doesn’t conceive. His faith is later rewarded with Grace, a strong-willed grand-daughter; while trying to correct the image painted by colonial historians (one of them a black Nigerian), Grace abandons chemistry to study history.
Most of the stories are set in Nigeria and glance approvingly at the United States or are set in US while looking back nostalgically at Nigeria. The story The American Embassy is set during the dark, gloomy days of the murderous Sani Abacha regime. It’s about a woman in a visa queue at the US embassy. She wants to join her journalist-husband who, after writing an article which the Abacha regime didn’t like too much, has sought asylum in the US.
In the story On Monday of Last Week, Kamara (holder of a Masters degree) ends up in Philadelphia where she babysits a ‘half-caste” scion of an Afro-American woman and a Jewish man. While she babysits, she thinks of her husband Tobechi, the man she followed to the US, who now speaks in a phony accent ‘that made her want to slap him”.
Akunna, the protagonist in The Thing Around Your Neck, the title story, goes to the land of the free with exalted notions. She ‘thought everybody in America had a car and a gun”. She gets into a relationship with a white man, not exactly an easy thing there or, indeed, anywhere else. Most of the people they come across-black and white-view their relationship from lenses stained by their own prejudices and baggage.
Most of the relationships examined in the book are barely functional; for instance in the story The Arrangers of Marriages Chinaza, a Nigerian girl in Nigeria is paired with Ofodile Emeka Udenwa, a Nigerian man she barely knows. ‘Imitation” is about a rich Nigerian whose wife lives in the US, where he visits for a few months in a year.
The Shivering features Ukamaka, a Nigerian student studying at Princeton and Chinedu, a sexually conflicted evangelical Christian. They became friends after an air disaster happened in their native Nigeria. Ukamaka is worried that her ex-boyfriend- for whom she still pines- could be among the dead. A subtext to this story is the indifference of the divine in the face of human suffering. Ukamaka’s former boyfriend has been saved from the horror crash in which scores have died.’Does it mean God prefers some people to others?” Ukamaka asked.
The question reminded me of a passage from Luke 13 I used to agonise over as a teenager. After slaughtering some Galileans, Pilate mixed their blood with sacrifices. Some among Jesus’ disciples wanted to know whether this had happened because these Galileans had sinned. In typically cryptic fashion, Jesus answered by way of a question, “do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?”
This brings me to the story, ‘Ghosts”, that evokes the Biafran war in which a million, mostly, Igbos needlessly died in their fight for a homeland that is separate from Nigeria (Biafra is the subject of Half of a Yellow Sun). The story is about a retired professor of maths who, on seeing Ikenna Okoro, imagines he’s seeing a ghost. For decades, he thought Okoro was one of the war dead.
The Thing Around Your Neck is a beautiful, immensely readable collection. Adichie, a citizen of the world (she lives in Nigeria and United States), has cleverly made use of her rich idiomatic Igbo storytelling heritage which she has mixed with experiences gleaned from her travels to come up with bewitching tales of love, war and death.