Much of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short fiction—collected in her latest book The Thing Around Your Neck—is populated by characters, nearly all of whom are Nigerian women, that are adrift in American cities, haunted by what their lives were before. They’ve been complicated by changes brought on by Western culture, changes that often result in the dissolution of relationships. More often than not, these women are with men who are scoundrels, and are cheated upon, taken for granted, and left to puzzle out their lives alone in a strange country. There are echoes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra B. Divakaruni in the way Adichie confounds and twists Western audiences’ expectations and prejudices, but more often than not, these stories feel flat, contrived, and New Yorker-stylized for a mass literary audience. However, when the prose is less self-conscious and freed of the exterior weights of Nation and Identity, the writing can be exemplary.
Too often in Thing the reader finishes a story, often told with a stony and prosaic style, unmoved and exasperated by the lack of any sort of interior monologue. The characters in Adichie’s U.S.-based stories slog through their domestic troubles with barely a hint of anything under the surface. The most successful story here, “A Private Experience,” drops any New Yorker-esque pandering and positions the action—an elongated scene with two characters—into a tight and tense space. Adichie’s narrative of two women trapped in an abandoned store during a riot is the one thing that the pallid domestic pieces “Imitation” and “Arrangers of Marriage” are not—engaging.
Chinua Achebe, fellow Nigerian and Igbo, haunts the final story, “The Headstrong Historian,” a synoptic and beautiful rumination on British colonialism and its rending of a single family and whole culture. Like Achebe, Adichie is a forceful and confident writer. At the end of “Headstrong,” Adichie blows up the close narrative, jumping forward in time and generations in single sentences, while making the utter hugeness of the story into a single brave reclamation of family. When she’s got something on the line, say the beating heart of a family and not a morose grad student moping around at Princeton, that's when Adichie writes universally, not to mention beautifully.