With two prize-winning novels behind her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become a formidable voice in contemporary West African literature. She is a true storyteller with a gift for language and a literary style that is almost imperceptible; it is only after reading at a breathless pace that we become aware of Adichie’s subtle craftsmanship.
Most of the 12 stories in The Thing Around Your Neck focus on men and women who travel between Africa and the United States. Nigeria is the place where most of Adichie’s characters live, leave and long to return, while the U.S. is a place of promise, new beginnings and ultimate disappointments.
The title story depicts a Nigerian girl who immigrates to the U.S. and quickly finds herself suffering from a suffocating sense of loneliness. Even after she falls in love with an American, she feels the pull of her homeland, and a death in the family threatens the fragile sense of place she has established. In “Imitation,” a wife and mother finds her comfortable life in Philadelphia threatened when she hears that her husband has brought his girlfriend to live in their Lagos home. Both stories suggest that there is no sense of permanence for an immigrant.
The majority of Adichie’s subjects are young women who must reach beyond their social class at moments of crisis. In “A Private Moment,” a Christian medical student seeks shelter with a poor Muslim woman during a religious riot and offers her medical assistance. In “The Arranged Marriage,” an assimilated husband forbids his sheltered wife, newly arrived from Lagos, to make familiar dishes from home.
If there is a fault in this collection, it is that some of the immigration stories seem a little too formulaic. The more successful stories are the ones where the fixed points of the immigration narrative are abandoned and the action flows in a more unexpected way. In “The Headstrong Historian,” Adichie pays homage to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, putting a provocative spin on one of Africa’s most celebrated novels about the influences of colonialism. Adichie has been called the literary daughter of Achebe and this fine collection shows how a daughter can continue the legacy of the father.
Lauren Bufferd writes from Nashville.