The thing about ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’

Books reviews are the holy grail of reviews. The thing about writing books and plays is that the literature is purely reliant on the strength of the characters that are created and refined by their creator – writers and directors. Characters are created to depict themes. So the character has to be as vivid as he is alive. If he looks and smells like a rat, then he does need to look and smell like a rat. So as a book reviewer, I feel that it takes plenty of authority to separate the writer from his characters, then slaughter or praise his characters before doing the same to their creator.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we all know who she is, right? Celebrated African writer, academician. And a real piece of African beauty. Critically, ‘she has been called “the most prominent” of a “procession of critically acclaimed young Anglophone authors [that] is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”‘.

In all honesty speaking, I have never been a fan of the African writers. Themes around tribalism, colonialism, the girl child among other ills that plague the continent are rife in these literary works. So I keep a wide berth with these writings. But what Wikipedia says up there about Chimamanda ‘succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature’ could not have been more accurate.

‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, like a majority of my book collection, was a recommendation from a pal. Short stories not greater than a few pages long, my copy had excellent/large double space font and it was just 12 stories long. 12 short stories.

I set off with ‘Cell One’ as I waited for my brother in the car. It was raining on this day, and I devoured at the contents as I patiently sat alone on this cold May evening. Humour, vivid imagery, easy story telling – I was quickly sold. So I continued to read. I read it as I sat in the patients’ room of Nairobi Hospital as I waited to see a Dr. Osoro, patient no. 001. I read as I lazed around in the Sunday afternoon sun, my unwashed behind and hangover threatening to overrule the day. I read before going to bed, when the story timely came to an end just as the drowsiness checked in. It was bliss.

I found my favourite in ‘Tomorrow Is Too Far‘, appreciated the tragedy of ‘The Monday of Last Week’. I was amused by the jugs (pitchers) and biscuits (cookies) of ‘The Arrangers of Marriage’, cracked a rib at the descriptions in ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ of “Kenyans and Tanzanians looking ordinary, almost indistinguishable”; and the thing about the jungus face looking like “God had slapped him flat against a wall and smeared his features all over his face”. The likes of such wry humour reverberated in every story.

Chimamanda paints poignant lurid pictures of rustic characters speaking in Igbo. The stories are narrated easily – prose was excellent, the tone set in the first few lines of the story. Her style of delving into the past and future of the characters from one stand point was flawlessly executed. There’s also something I noted with a smile, something that she does effortlessly in a majority of the stories – she doesn’t complete them. She sort of, uhm, just stops writing? Yes, she stops.

Sadly, I got disinterested somewhere amidst all the fun fare of the Igbo and cassava rice.

There was a both a drag and a pull to the stories with their recurrent themes around women, Nigeria and America – Women in Nigeria, shift from Nigeria to America, then America and the Nigerians, of Nigerian women. Themes like sexual harassment, death, regret and post-war tribulations were now jaded. So naturally, I gave it a rest. The thing about change and rest, yes?

But I did have a long queue of unfinished books. A most bad habit of the busy, greedy mind.

Right before the year came to a close, I reached for the book one last time. Surely, I had been reading the book for over six months now. I did something that I would later look back on and smile about – I didn’t take stock of the stories, of how many I had left or of what the story I had read last spoke about. So I opened the book with that guilt free where-were-we feeling and started on ‘The Headstrong Historian’.

The drums slowly started to beat as soon as I crossed the bridge of the flashback with the lines ‘From the moment she first saw him at a wrestling match….’ The story spans 3 centuries and 3 generations. The title is apt and its relevance evenly split in the three broad generations that the story traverses. The storyline is nostalgic of Margaret Ogolla’s Akoko of ‘River and the Source’.
And beautifully the story, and the book, is brought to a close as Grace ‘held her grandmother’s hand, the palm thickened from years of making pottery’.

My recommendation? Read the book. As for me, I am off to collect her other works; the Chimamanda drums are still beating in my head.

Thought to let you know:
This review was the first book review I ever penned. I wrote this on 1 January 2013. I remember the timing impeccably because I archived the book as soon as I finished reading it then hit the blank page guns blazing. The excitement to get a hold of some of her earlier work reeks in the review, doesn’t it?

Kwani? Trust: In conversation with Nuruddin Farah
Special feature: Happy birthday brah

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