Book Du Jour – The Thing Around Your Neck (2009)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has emerged as one of the best writers of her generation – I could say amongst ‘post-colonial writers’ but I think she deserves to be assessed outside that limited label.
She is a young writer but amazingly developed as an artist, having already produced at least one great work in her second novel, ‘Half a Yellow Sun’. ‘Purple Hibiscus’ was a strong debut but ‘Half a Yellow Sun’, to my mind, competes with Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ for the title of ‘Great Nigerian Novel’. In interviews she has stated that she grew up in Nigeria admiring the novels of the great father of Anglophone African writing, Chinua Achebe, but what is notable about her development is that she has formed herself into a very different and original artist with an incredibly rich and sensual style.
To be fair to Achebe, he didn’t set out to be a stylist. He was something of a pioneer and his style has a plain elegance that suits the polemical nature of the sorts of books he wrote. Achebe’s novels re-tell moments in Nigeria’s colonial and post-colonial history in a curiously compact way – the implication seems to be that the historical record is being revised with a focus on particular moments. They are masterpieces of compression.
Adichie’s approach to history is very different – her sensibility in ‘Half a Yellow Sun’ is epic and expansive. Her account of the Nigerian-Biafran war through the point-of-view of five major characters is one of the most ambitious and impressive novels I’ve read in the last ten years.
It is with this reading context that I approached Adichie’s first collection of short stories, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ and my enthusiasm for her writing hasn’t diminished as a result. She was longlisted for last year’s Frank O’Connor and I have to say she would probably have been my winner from the few I’ve retrospectively read so far. The best stories in this collection find new ways of describing migrant disaffection – ‘Imitation’, ‘The Shivering’ – or describe the lives of Nigerians at home in in a way that casts long historical shadows – ‘Ghosts’.
A good novelist does not necessarily make a good short story writer, but Adichie adapts to the form with flair, and her second-person title story is a very powerful example of an experiment that offers a version of migrant experience in a form and on a scale that only the short story could have accomodated.
One of the most powerful stories is ‘Ghosts’, a piece that could easily substitute as a sort of postscript to ‘Half a Yellow Sun’ and portrays in beautifully elegiac tones the battered, past-obsessed psyche of the generation who survived the civil war. ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ and ‘The Headstrong Historian’ both implicitly map out the Adichie aesthetic. The former story does this with a brilliant depiction of a female Nigerian writer’s explosive attendance at a European resort-style Writers’ Retreat, and the latter suggests Adichie’s focus on the making of one’s own intellectual being and orientation by producing a detailed history of a particular African education.
All in all, the impression isn’t one of a novelist holidaying in a form they take less seriously, but of an artist adapting her themes and style and storytelling very expertly to a smaller scale.
Best stories – ‘Ghosts’, ‘Imitation’, ‘Cell One’, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’.