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Review Chimamanda's "the Thing Around Your Neck" Here - Literature - Nairaland

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Review Chimamanda's "the Thing Around Your Neck" Here by AloyEmeka9: 8:52pm On Jul 22, 2009
If you are reading the book, write a short review here.
Re: Review Chimamanda's "the Thing Around Your Neck" Here by AloyEmeka9: 8:53pm On Jul 22, 2009
Review: The thing around our necks

By Reuben Abati

The Thing Around Your Neck; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Farafina Books; Lagos; 2009

CHIMAMANDA Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, her newly released collection of short stories is an excitingly good collection, in which the author before now of Half of A Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus does both old and new things in an extraordinary manner that confirms her mastery of craft. The collection is a triumph of form and content. Nearly every major character in the 12 stories in the collection has a thing around his or her neck. Nkem, in "Imitation", has "her hair set in a flip that would rest around her neck the way Obiora likes." (p.27).


In "A Private Experience", the archetypal character referred to only as the woman wears a "scarf that hangs around her neck" (p. 44); in "Ghosts", Ikenna Okoro's Adams's apple "bobbed alarmingly, as if just about to pierce the wrinkled skin of his neck and pop out" (p.58); Tracy, the shadowy character with bisexual motivations, in "On Monday of Last Week", has a thing that is "stuck right here in my throat, you know?" (p.88). In the story from which the book derives its title, narrated in the second person pronoun, a technique that is further put to masterly use in "Tomorrow is Too Far", the lead character tells us: 'at night something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep." (p.119).

But Adichie's characters do not fall asleep, they are portrayed in circumstances where they seek to remove that choke around the neck, their efforts at survival, their relationships, and the truths and meanings that they encounter in the process, the freedom that they achieve or do not achieve: these are the stuff of the narratives in The Thing Around Your Neck, as the author turns metaphor into true tales about the human condition. Her protagonists and narrators are mainly women, middle class Nigerian women, involved in an emotional struggle for power and space, but the author refrains from melodrama or abject moralising; she takes us into the lives of these ordinary people, and the men in their lives or out of their lives, their heroism lies in their effort to walk away, to seek new meanings, or their courage to hang on to realities.

And so in every instance the story never really ends, every ending is a suggestion of a new beginning, the story is stretched into an undefined distance, with strong hints of "a flowering of extravagant hope" (p. 80). This hope is encapsulated in the declaration in "The Thing Around Your Neck", that "The thing that wrapped itself around your neck, that nearly choked you before you fell asleep, started to loosen, to let go" (p.125). This suggestion of freedom, its very possibility, sharpens the edge of the narration, and its rejection of powerlessness.

In "Cell One," the first story, the narrator describes how her over-pampered, indulgent brother gains freedom and maturity, after his undisciplined lifestyle brought him within a few inches of death, when he got mistakenly arrested as a university campus cultist and he found himself in a terrible confrontation with a ruthless, corrupt and murderous police institution, and a dehumanising detention system. In "Imitation" , a Nigerian wife who lives in the United States while her husband visits for two months a year, decides to change her hair to the kind of short and curly hair, she had been told her husband's young mistress in Lagos wears, and to confront the insecurity, the anxiety and the loneliness of being away from her husband, and the pain of his reported infidelity she decides to "speak up" and "take a stand", something she has never really done: "we are moving back at the end of the school year. We are moving back to live in Lagos. We are moving back, I want to know when a new houseboy is hired in my house, And the children need you" (pp. 41-42).

"A Private Experience" is about the evil and cost of religious and ethnic violence; two women: one Muslim, the other Christian, the one is Hausa, the other is Ibo are brought together in the wake of a raging conflict that had pitched their kinsmen against each other resulting on the streets of Kano in an orgy of death and destruction, but the two women forge a solidarity, and share their stories and fears, a solidarity that is contrapuntal to the raging madness outside the dusty, smelly abandoned space that has become their place of refuge from danger. The bond between them in that moment, underscores the madness of the riots and the supremacy of the value of humanism.

In "Ghosts", Professor James Nwoye, deals with the many ghosts in his life: the devastating impact of the civil war, and how many years later, its ghosts continue to reappear, either in the physical shape of an intrepid Ikenna Okoro, long given up for dead, or memories of the daughter that died and the evil of war; the present is taken up also by ghosts: the university system that has become a ghost of its old self, systemic corruption, the non-payment of pensions to retired persons, drug counterfeiting; but in the midst of the despair, he finds hope and redemption in the ghost of his late wife that continues to "visit", and so the sound of "doors opening and closing" brings him continuous relief in the expectation that "what is ahead is better" (p.73).

In "On Monday of Last week", Kamara, who had traveled to the United States to join her husband Tobechi, suddenly finds a different man, "there were emotions she wanted to hold in the palms of her hand that were simply no longer there" (p.85), but she finds new meaning working as a nanny for a strange American couple with a bi-racial child. In "Jumping Monkey Hill", easily one of the most accomplished stories in the collection, Adichie, using a story within a story format, deals with the subject of sexual harassment and male chauvinism, and a woman's possible choice. "The Thing Around Your Neck" is a classic description of a Nigerian female immigrant's typical experience in America: the sudden realisation that winning the American Visa lottery does not translate automatically into a life of bliss, but loneliness, failed expectations, compromises, and the pressure of rising expectations from home.

"The American Embassy" evokes images of the sub-human treatment of Nigerians at foreign embassies, against the background of the failures of the Nigerian state, the despotism of the military elite, the crisis of media repression and one woman's attempt to cope with the trauma of a journalist-husband who has fled into exile, a son that was murdered, the injury she sustained when she jumped from a two-storey building, her only way of escape, and the humiliation of being asked to provide evidence of her anguish by an unfeeling passport officer. She kept her pride and "walked out of the American embassy" (p. 141).

In "The Shivering", Ukamaka, who had been sacked by her boyfriend, nevertheless continues to cling to him, agonising over her unrequited love and dashed hopes, but she finds solace in the most unlikely quarters, in conversations with a stranger who knocked on her door, who made her shiver with his faith-soaked prayers, and who won her friendship with his ability to listen. The novelist peels the layers of this story as if she is dicing a piece of onion, and as new truths are revealed about Chinedu - he is gay, he is not even in Princeton, he is out of status, like Ukamaka, he too had lost something, it is upon this shared field of experience that their relationship is built. "The Arrangers of Marriage" deals with a major topic among Nigerian immigrants in the United States, and this is probably the most hilarious story in the collection, as Adichie uses humour to expose the emptiness of relationships that are based on false assumptions. Even here, Chinaza Agatha Okafor, the female lead, knows what she wants. "Tomorrow is Too far" is a strong psychological and sociological inquiry into sibling rivalry, the son-preference phenomenon in Nigeria, the complexities of bi-racial marriages, and the confession of an unknown truth about death in the family. "The Headstrong Historian" returns to the old theme of tradition and modernity and the strong, assertive woman as a certain archetype.

Adichie's characters are well-shaped, real-life characters with whom we immediately empathise; she holds up to the reader familiar images of contemporary reality, we are drawn into the stories because these characters speak directly to us about our own fears and the fears of people that we know, they re-enact the drama of our lives: the challenges of parenting, the deceptiveness of appearances, life's many disappointments, immigration to the United States and other countries abroad, hopes and frustrations, love, duty, the uncertainty of human relationships, sexuality and asexuality, ontology and man's spiritual life in the context of doubts about God and his place in our lives.

Adichie's use of contemporary material, incidents and suggestions from Nigeria's recent history lends the stories a topical flavour; beyond the sociological scent of her narrative, she turns the stories into political commentaries, most urgently in "Ghosts", "Cell One" and "The American Embassy" focusing on leadership, power and human freedom. The continual movement between United States and Nigeria provides cross-cultural contrasts and such pluralism that are of topical relevance to those who are trapped between home and diaspora, an interesting dialogue between home and outside, and the "interplay of life forces" along that bridge. But even more so is Chimamanda's strong feeling for home and its socio-political innards, her lack of cultural estrangement, and the universal relevance of the humanism of her stories.

This is literature of relevance; her narrative is conditioned by a passion for human progress and freedom, framed with subtle didacticism. The writing is disciplined, the prose is economical, Adichie takes full command of her material, moulding the stuff as a sculptor does. Many of the stories appear so well-chiseled, the reader is tempted to think he or she could have written exactly the same thing. Adichie makes complex narratives and conflicted characters look so simple, through the symbolic power of language and its varieties.

Her writing is evocative, transporting us to known and unknown distances, described in such intimate and personal detail, we seem to have been part of their creation, their sounds and smell. She deals with more intimate lived realities that compel reflection about the meaning of Being and relationships. The stories in The Thing Around Your Neck bear the true marks of originality. This book is a further confirmation of Chimamanda's superb literary skills.

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