Reviewed by Jennifer Makumbi
Adichie’s collection of short stories focuses majorly on women’s experiences – how being a woman shapes the world around them and how it impacts their lives. The stories are set in both Adichie’s native Nigeria, especially Nsukka University, and her adopted home in the United States of America. Like in her novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, the characters are primarily privileged Nigerians who are educated and have the capital to travel outside Nigeria. Most of the stories, especially those dealing with women’s experiences, have a latent tragic strand giving a sense that despite their achievement in education and elsewhere, Nigerian women are still bound by being female.
In ‘Cell One’ through the eyes of a neglected daughter we see her favoured brother degenerate from stealing from their parents to joining cult gangs at University where her parent are lecturers. In a desperate attempt to catch her parents’ attention, the daughter breaks their car’s windscreen but then her brother gets arrested. In this moment of crisis – she becomes even more invisible. However, in ‘Tomorrow is Too Far’, the invisible sister takes matters in her hands with tragic consequences.
The loneliness of a wife of the super rich, dumped in America with all the privileges of rich Nigerians, obliterates the social boundaries between mistress and servant in ‘Imitations’. While having a wife in USA is a status symbol for the husband – who stays Nigeria dating younger women – it is a loss for the wife. How does such a wife reclaim her marriage? But then boundaries between sexualities are not safe in this collection either; in ‘On Monday of Last Week’ a wife who has recently arrived in America from Nigeria finds herself attracted to her employer’s wife. In the title story, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ America is not a safe haven that it is touted to be. A girl who is sent to her ‘uncle’ to help her get on her feet, sees all her dreams fade as she finds herself forced to show her appreciation with sexual favours.
In ‘A Private Experience’, when two women are thrown together in a moment of fear, Nigerian labels which would normally place them in different worlds, labels like rich, Christian, Southerner, Igbo as opposed to poor, Hausa, Northerner and Moslem evaporate. What we are left with are two shivering human beings. Yet in ‘The America Embassy’ a woman who watched her son killed by assassins the day before is denied American asylum because she cannot prove her story.
The ghost of the Biafra war returns in ‘Ghosts’. Here, with stunning dexterity, Adichie interweaves the real and the imagined seamlessly as the reader is brought into the reality of a privileged retired lecturer who has lost his wife but whose children and grandchildren are abroad and can only be reached on phone.
There are times however when the significance of images and symbols used escape the reader. In ‘Imitation’, the masks are bigger than a mere commentary on appearances vs. Reality. However what they are doing is not clear. I had a sense that the image of the masks and their historicity became rather overpowering in relation to the themes being explored in the story.
Out of the twelve stories in the collection, only two were problematic for me. The first, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’, I found plain nasty. The problem is characterisation. Here we have a clichéd English man (creepy, rotten teeth and arrogant) running a writing programme for African writers but knows nothing useful about African realities. The African writers attending the programme have no names; they are identified by their nationalities thus becoming representations of their nations. Hence, the Kenyan is not different from the Tanzanian; they are ordinary, the Senegalese is a lesbian, the Ugandan is haughty but worships the creepy English man, the white South African is invisible, the black South African is homophobic and timid (the Nigerian tells him, “This kind of attitude is why they could kill you and herd you into townships and require passes from you before you could walk on your own land!”) and of course the no-nonsense Nigerian, Ujunwa, who stands up to the white man. Here, I felt that the more serious issue of stereotyping and essentialising Africa and Africans is lost in this essentialising of nationalities.
The other story, ‘The Headstrong Historian’ could be read as homage to Achebe but instead comes across as mimicry, especially as Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, opens with the words, “Things started to fall apart …” In this story we hear echoes from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, his Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease only with a feminist twist.
Otherwise, the stories in this collection are intriguing and Adichie’s style is enviable. Irresolution, prevalent in most of the stories, is quite stylish at the moment: it suggests that Adichie’s critique of her society takes the form of snapshots, of captured moments. Fast-forwading, which normally takes the joy of discovery out a story, is effectively used. The two stories written in the second person are convincingly good, especially ‘Tomorrow is Too Far’ where it works as an inner voice. Through her novels, Adichie established herself at a very young age as griot; the short stories in this collection confirm it. One waits to see what she will do next.