The nice people of A Great Read got in touch with me a while ago, asking if I’d like a free book in exchange for mentioning their website – which I was more than happy to do, because their website seems great. Basically, it’s an online independent bookseller – and I think many of us are on the hunt for an ethical alternative to Amazon: A Great Read could well be it.
I also liked that they weren’t just after a link – they were keen for me to find a book I wanted to read, and write a review of it; they love books and want to spread that joy. I don’t mind a book myself. And I had my eye on getting another of those beautiful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reprints, so asked for the short story collection The Thing Around Your Neck, originally published in 2009. Writing about short stories is always difficult, and I seem to have ended up writing an enormous review.
Rachel and I discussed short stories on our ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast recently, and agreed that we wouldn’t naturally race towards them – and only really read them if we were in the right mood. I was intrigued to see how Adichie – whose strength lies, I believe, in her gradual creation of enormous depth to her characters – would handle only being able to have a handful of pages to create each world.
And these worlds are mostly in Nigeria or America. Adichie looks at people at different stages of life – from long-distance marriages (where the wife knows the man is having an affair), to the dark cruelties of Nigerian prison, to a writing camp where a white Englishman dictates to various African writers what is and is not considered an accurate depiction of the African experience. The last of these, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’, is probably Adichie’s least subtle, in terms of message, but also the one which leaves the reader questioning how autobiographical it might be.
Political issues abound – either openly and vividly (bonding between two very different women who have taken shelter in a shop during a murderous riot; a woman queues for an American visa after her child has been killed and her journalist husband exiled) or more indirectly (an arranged marriage in America is laced with disappointment; two Nigerians who meet at university have very different experiences of home and of America). Many stories look at the differences between Africa and America – for instance, in ‘On Monday of Last Week’:
She had come to understand that American parenting was a juggling of anxieties, and that it came with having too much food: a sated belly gave Americans time to worry that their child might have a rare disease that they had just read about, made them think they had the right to protect their child from disappointment and want and failure. A sated belly gave Americans the luxury of praising themselves for being good parents, as if caring for one’s child were the exception rather than the rule.
Perhaps only one story (‘Tomorrow is Too Far’) has little to say about race or politics – it is a strong and surprising story of memory and guilt – and only one story, the last in the collection, struck me as rather weak. Adichie’s writing is usually assured and precise, and her structuring so even and perfect that you don’t even notice that each story has a framework. They don’t feel too ornamentally exact in their arc of action, but nor do they feel scattergun. The exception is this final story, ‘The Headstrong Historian’, which tries to cover too much ground, and does so slightly clumsily in its jumps forward in time.
The title of the book is also the title of a story, and it is probably the collection’s most innovative in style – in that it is entirely in the second person. Throughout the story, there is an iterated image of the ‘thing’ of the title – though Adichie never elaborates what exactly it represents.
At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.
In this case ‘you’ are a Nigerian student at an American university and ‘you’ start dating a man who is fiercely un-racist, rich, and perhaps a little too protective. He (does he have a name? I don’t think so) is a superbly complex character, and this is a nuanced relationship. Rather less nuanced (but, in this instance, very effective) are the broad brushstrokes in which the rest of America are painted:
You knew by people’s reactions that you two were abnormal – the way the nasty ones were too nasty and the nice ones too nice. The old white men and women who muttered and glared at him, the black men who shook their heads at you, the black women whose pitying eyes bemoaned your lack of self-esteem, your self-loathing. Or the black women who smiled swift solidarity smiles; the black men who tried too hard to forgive you, saying a too-obvious hi to him; the white men and women who said ‘What a good-looking pair’ too brightly, too loudly, as though to prove their own open-mindedness to themselves.
The protagonists in Adichie’s stories are not necessarily all that similar. Yes, they are almost all black women from Nigeria, but that obviously no more binds them together than Katherine Mansfield’s (later) short stories mostly being about white women in England, for example. What does feel repetitive, though, is how they are almost all – all? – women to whom things happen. They are noble, passive people, victims to the prejudices and misunderstandings of others. They experience disillusionment and disappointment, except in those instances where they don’t have any illusions in the first place.
On one level, sure, this makes sense – black women face a great deal of sexism and racism in America, and the experience of those who’ve emigrated from Nigeria doubtless encompasses those lives that Adichie portrays. I don’t take any issue with her depiction of the way these characters are treated – but why are they all so good? They have so few flaws. They all seem to be the voice of reason in the face of prejudice; moral compasses surrounded by those going to the bad. The stories would have been even more interesting if she had allowed them to have more imperfections; if they had always represented the Right Opinion. As a social writer pointing out the wrongs of the 21st century, this failing doesn’t matter; as a short story writer demonstrating her craft, it does. The latter is, yes, rather less important – but since they aren’t mutually exclusive, I’d love to see both in her next collection.
Still, this drawback doesn’t prevent The Thing Around Your Neck from being a fantastic collection, elegantly written and beautifully engaging. And, in these lovely covers, it’s even more desirable for the shelves.