Sunday, June 14, 2009

Abby WONG reviews The Thing Around Your Neck

Review by Abby WONG

I WAS AN INEFFECTUAL MOTHER for an entire week. I was useless at doing any household chores, as I was spellbound by the dozen stories collected in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, The Thing Around Your Neck (Fourth Estate, 2009). I felt like a kid, hiding from my children and feverishly reading the book in a secret corner of the house.

But who wouldn’t be engaged by Adichie? In my opinion, she is one of the few gifted writers who possess the uncanny skill of churning out great opening lines coupled with a seductive ability to tell stories. At 31, she is already a formidable voice in African literature, and she has lavished that talent prodigiously on this collection of short stories.

Graceful and not at all monotonous, Adichie’s voice flits appropriately from one story to another, evoking in us a mixture of emotions: melancholy, longing, insecurity, despair and disparagement. This collection is, to me, a collection of feelings. The stories have the same allure as hearing, in quietude and complete absorption, someone confiding an intimate slice of life over the phone.

In bed after midnight and enthralled by the second story, Imitation, I could faintly hear Nkem’s words as she confesses her suspicion that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman. Adichie is a stylist who is able to infuse wisely chosen words and wonderfully crafted lines with emotions so well that she managed to evoke in me the rage that Nkem was so desperately trying to hide.

But as I was about to concur my disdain over his adulterous behavior, Nkem’s husband appears and the writer reveals him as a fair and loving man. I was as exasperated by Nkem’s foolish accusation as I was by my own premature judgement.

Achidie, however, is not always manipulative. Her regular dalliance with straightforward violent drama can be awe-stirring and terrorising, leaving you no room to escape and no choice but to read on. In “A Private Experience,” a Christian Igbo man accidentally drives over a copy of the Quran. Some Muslim men nearby drag the poor fellow out of the car, cut his head off with a flash of a machete, and then parade it on the streets and prompt others to join in, causing a riot to break out.

Meanwhile, amidst the full-blown chaos, a Muslim woman and a Christian sister take refuge together in a shack. Unfazed by the feeling of terror that simmers through the walls, they carry out whispered exchanges, each more interested in the other’s life than in the differences between their religions.

Of all Adichie’s attributes, her ability to make acute observations of people and their dilemmas is most compelling. Crisply, she puts her observations into stories, weaving a matrix of human plight and emotion that seem universal.

Her characters in these stories are often haunted by the fear of affronting their destiny and finding themselves in circumstances that are in complete contrast to their dreams: A new young wife from Nigeria anxiously arrives in New York only to be used and abused by her husband; a naive Nigerian nanny, intrigued by her mistress’ unusually kind demeanour, agrees to bare her body for exploration.

Sometimes, though, Adichie’s writing style is her weakness as well as her strength. The tiniest crumb of dissatisfaction I have with this book is that some of the stories have rather unresolved endings, leaving me wondering what happened, and wanting to know more.

Indeed, some of the characters are so strong that they could have full-length novels built around them. For example, the friendship that develops between the Christian sister and the Muslim woman I mentioned earlier could well blossom into something extraordinary.

However, by any reckoning, Adichie is really good at writing short stories, leaving out nothing essential and putting in nothing unnecessary. She makes short stories seem like birdsong, quick yet satisfying, while readers are the birdwatchers content with the chirping.

Reproduced from the Sunday Star of June 14, 2009


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