I took a short story class this past semester and it left me a bit unsatisfied with the form. We read six collections and while the writing was superb in most of the collections, the stories all felt a bit repetitive. So I was hesitant to read another short story collection by a single author, but I read and thoroughly enjoyed Adichie’s essay, We Should All Be Feminist, last year, so I decided to give The Thing Around Your Neck a try. I was so happy that I took a chance on this book.
The twelve stories in this collection tackle love, whether it’s familial, romantic, platonic or unrequited. But it’s more than a bunch of love stories. Adichie delves into religion, politics, the afterlife, racism and racial ignorance, the American Dream and so many other issues. Each character in these stories have ties to both Africa (mainly Nigeria) and America. They come from both shantytowns and mansions. In essence, these characters seem real and their problems tug at the heart.
One of my biggest complaints about the short story collections I read over the semester was that most of the voices and stories began to blend together. This isn’t the case in Adichie’s book. The characters in her book all feel unique from one another. There’s the young woman in “Cell One” who watches as her brother gets away with so much mischief; there’s the retired professor who runs across a former colleague who he thought was deceased; there is the woman who travels to Nigeria with her sister and is soon caught up a religious riot between Muslims and Christians. Give me a title of a story from this collection and I can summarize key details from each story.
Not only do the characters come alive, but the environments are so detailed that I feel as though I’m walking next to a character or driving alongside them in their cramped Peugeot car. Adichie makes both the African and American landscape to come alive. She puts in just enough details to paint a clear picture, which is not easy for many writers. It’s all about trusting the reader and it’s clear that Adichie trusts her readers to use their imagination and fill in the blanks if she left any details out.
The only real issue I had with this collection was Adichie’s treatment and observation of the American Dream. And really, I just think this is a critique of what we mean when we talk about the American Dream. Most of the immigrant characters see America as this utopia. It’s the land where dreams come true if you work hard. But when they come to America, they find that the country is lifeless and lacks culture. There are a few characters who embrace the American lifestyle and quickly give up their African culture and identity. But most characters seem bored and worried about this culture of overabundance and self-indulgence. What I think is important to note is that these characters exist in white America. And their observations and judgments about America stem from their interactions with white people. There are maybe two or three stories, where a Nigerian immigrant interacts with a Hispanic or black American, and I can’t think of any story where an Asian American makes a significant appearance. Adichie has a wonderful TED talk on the danger of having a single narrative, and the African characters in this collection have distinct voices. So it’s disappointing to see a singular treatment of America and American society. I think Adichie tries to critique our idea of the American Dream, but it doesn’t go far enough for me.
There is so much that I loved about this book and it is already one of my favorite books of the year. I was a little intimidated by the African names and words that Adichie threw in, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. I read this in about two or three days, but I plan on reading this again and again because it is just so good. I would recommend this to anyone who loves the short story, loves African culture or just wants to enjoy well-written stories.