Oh, the deep, still sadness of the characters in The Thing Around Your Neck! Whether living in Africa or the United States, the Nigerians in this powerful, deftly assembled short story collection seem to float in a strange and lonely form of exile. Suburban America cannot truly nurture them, but, then again, neither can their homeland.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a young Nigerian writer who sprang into fame with her two earlier novels “Purple Hibiscus” (2003) and “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2006). Readers who enjoyed these examinations of life in Nigeria already know Adichie’s gifts as a storyteller, all of which are on display in the dozen stories gathered together in “The Thing Around Your Neck.”
The backgrounds of her characters in this collection may initially seem exotic to Western readers. And yet the love, justice, and understanding they seek are so fundamental and familiar that there are few readers of any background who won’t recognize acres – perhaps even miles – of common ground. Here, Adichie’s characters are as likely to inhabit Hartford or Princeton as they are Nsukka or Lagos. Many either are academics or have some ties to a campus (reflecting Adiche’s own experience as the daughter of a Nigerian professor and university registrar.)
But all in some way are in a state of loss. In “Imitation,” Nkem, living in suburban Philadelphia with her young children, has just discovered that her husband, who lives in Nigeria most of the year, has a mistress. In “A Private Experience,” Chika, caught in the midst of an ethnic riot in a Nigerian market, is about to lose her sister to violence. In “The Arrangers of Marriage,” Chinaza (rechristened “Agatha Bell” by her new husband) is a young wife living in Brooklyn, fighting the erosion of her identity by a strange new world and a man she will never love.
For most of them, there is a loss of wholeness, thrust upon them by both the discomfort in their own country and the powerful pull of Western culture, into whose orbit they seem constantly to be sucked, whether they have ever actually set foot outside Nigeria or not.
“Boys who had grown up watching Sesame Street, reading Enid Blyton, eating cornflakes for breakfast, attending the university staff primary school in smartly polished brown sandals, were now cutting through the mosquito netting of their neighbor’s windows, sliding out glass louvers and climbing in to steal TVs and VCRs,” thinks a character in “Cell One,” the opening story, in which the children of Nigerian professors begin turning to crime.
In “The American Embassy,” Nigerians seeking visas to the US stand in one of the “long, tired lines outside the embassy gates, in cordoned-off areas with no shade where the furious sun caused friendships and headaches and despair.” And yet when one of the visa seekers – a Nigerian woman whose young son was killed two days earlier in an act of political retribution – finally arrives in the embassy, she finds she cannot bring herself to do the kind of begging required to gain asylum in the US.
But perhaps even more confused are the characters already in the US. They are spouses, students, and parents in exile who will probably never leave and yet neither will they ever really belong. They appreciate the freedom, safety, and affluence that surround them, and yet they are not at ease. Their lives have become “plastic,” thinks Nkem. And yet, she knows, “she really belonged to this country now, this country of curiosities and crudities, this country where you could drive at night and not fear armed robbers, where restaurants served one person enough food for three.” America, she realizes, has “grown on her, snaked its roots under her skin.”
Or, more dramatically, as the narrator of the title story puts it, as she considers the anomalies of her new country, her sense of dislocation becomes “something that would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.”
Adichie’s gift to readers in this book is to give voice to some of the forms of Nigerian heartbreak that Westerners might not otherwise hear. But despite the deep hurt that ripples through these stories, the characters never shout out their sadness. If they are alive, they know they are fortunate. If they are sad, they hold it within.
Wisely, Adichie mostly keeps away from politics. Her stories are not a condemnation of the West or the US. (Although the immigrants’ views of America – land of Pilates classes, giant supermarkets, and loneliness – is not always flattering.) Instead, Adichie gives us what a first-rate writer should: a keen yet poignant view of the contradictions of the human condition.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.