THE THING AROUND YOUR NECK by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book Quote:

“Her son had been killed, that was all she would say.  Killed. Nothing about how his laughter started somehow above his head, high and tinkly.  How he called sweets ‘breadie-breadie.’  How he grasped her neck tight when she held him. How her husband said that he would be an artist because he didn’t try to build with his LEGO blocks but instead he arranged them, side by side, alternating colors. They did not deserve to know.”

Book Review:

Review by Bonnie Brody (AUG 29, 2010)

A collection of short stories is one of my favorite genres for reading. It is rare to find a book of short stories that is consistent in quality. When I do, it is a rare gift. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck is just such a gift. It consists of stories about Nigeria and the United States, focusing on the clash of cultures and the cultural misunderstandings and prejudices that the protagonists face. This book also includes the short story that I consider my all-time favorite – “The Headstrong Historian.” I read it for the third time in this collection. I first read it in The New Yorker, then in the Pen/O’Henry Prize Stories of 2010. It gets better each time I read it.

“The Headstrong Historian” takes us to Nigeria where we meet Ngwambe. She is a woman who believes in the culture of her tribe but is also strong enough to stand up against it if necessary. Ngwambe “is a strong-willed woman hemmed in by custom and circumstance, whose beloved son betrays her in an unimaginable way.” Nqwambe is widowed early and grieves the loss of her beloved husband. Despite her son’s betrayal, the betrayal of her husband’s brothers, and her search for ways to keep her culture alive during a time when colonization and “Christianizing the heathens” is booming, Ngwambe carries on. This story speaks to the strength of marital and inter-generational love and the power of a strong woman.

“A Private Experience” focuses on the clash between science and the old ways.  A retired professor of mathematics has not received his retirement pension in over three years due to government corruption.  While on campus to check once again to see if his pension monies have arrived, he runs into a man who may or may not be a ghost.  They discuss the Biafran war of 1970.  The professor thinks about his beloved wife who died a few years ago and who visits him regularly, more in the dry season than during the rainy one.  The professor lives in two worlds, the world of mathematics and science and in the old belief system of his people.

“On Monday of Last Week” is about Kamara, an educated African worker who comes to the United States to be reunited with her boyfriend after six years apart. Things are awkward between them.  Kamara takes a job as a childcare worker.  Her boyfriend’s mother is an artist, an elusive and spectral figure.  Once Kamara meets her, she asks Kamara about nude modeling.  Kamara gives this careful thought and when she returns to the house she says yes, thinking this is a special offer just for her.  However, it is a seductive come-on, used for most women who enter the house. Kamara feels heartbreak and shame.

The title story, “The Thing Around Your Neck” is an extraordinarily beautiful tale about an Igbu girl from Lagos who wins a Visa to the United States “where everyone has a house, a car and a gun.”  She goes to live with her aunt and uncle but leaves because her uncle makes inappropriate sexual advances towards her. As an excuse for his behavior, he tells her that the U.S. is a place of give and take.  She ends up in Connecticut, bitter and perspicaciously observant of American culture.  She sends money to her family but not letters.  The thing around her neck is tight when she tries to sleep but loosens once she’s in a relationship with a college boy.  The clash of cultures and the loneliness that comes on its tail is painful to read about.

In “The American Embassy,” a woman has lost her son to soldiers as a result of her journalist husband’s anti-government article.  She is waiting in line at the U.S. embassy to seek political asylum in the U.S.  While in line, she reminisces about her marriage, her son, and the events leading to her son’s death.  When it finally comes time for her to be interviewed by a U.S. embassy employee, she is unable to recount the political events leading up to her son’s death.  She feels she would be using her son’s death to her own advantage.  Towards the end of the interview, she turns around and walks out.

The book contains twelve stories, all top-notch and all dealing with the convergence of cultures, usually the United States and Nigeria.  Adiche writes so beautifully that I can not read her stories just once.  Painful though they are, I can see myself reading them again and again.  She gets the human predicament, especially the predicament of the poor, those with no options, and the contradictions between old beliefs and new ones.  She is also able to see the false beliefs that people take on when they think they are acculturated or part of the larger society.  She knows they are still outside looking in, and always will be.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 55 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Bonnie Brody
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August 29, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Africa, Class - Race - Gender, Short Stories, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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