“Cell One,” “On Monday of Last Week,” “Jumping Monkey Hill,” and “The Shivering”
I know, today’s blog post title is ridiculously long, but I’m discussing my four favourite stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new collection (The Thing Around Your Neck; this is the British cover, since I used the American cover yesterday) and the alternative was “Four Adichie Stories.” I’m not good at titling posts! I’m publishing my thoughts on the stories today as part of John Mutford’s weekly event Short Story Monday. For those who don’t read my Sunday Salons, she’s one of my very favourite authors and I loved this latest book but at the same time I found it uneven. All but one of the collected stories have been published over years, and some of them felt like experiments made by a young author, i.e. not quite perfect. So I don’t think this book is quite as incredible as her first two (which were both novels and, quite frankly, so stunning it would have been difficult to live up to them), but the good stories far outweigh the not-quite-so-good and make it well worth the read (it came by its five stars honestly). Fortunately for those who have yet to read Adichie, one of these stories is available for free online, so you can get a taste. I promise you’ll want to go out and read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun (her two novels) right away!
That story would be “Cell One” (I’ve linked it through to the New Yorker), which opens the collection. To me, this was a perfect short story: it completely inhabited its form, and I can’t imagine it would be nearly as powerful as a novella or novel. It’s apparent rom the opening sentences that Adichie is in complete command:
The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbor Osita who climbed in through the dining room window and stole our TV, our VCR, and the Purple Rain and Thriller videotapes my father had brought back from America. The second time our house was robbed, it was my brother Nnamabia who faked a break-in and stole my mother’s jewelry.
Look at how much she’s already told us about the narrator, while completely drawing us in, to find out why Nnamabia would do such a thing! While the story begins as a family story, with the parents and younger sibling trying to figure out why Nnamabia is acting out and how to stop him, it soon broadens in scope.
It was the season of cults on our serene Nsukka campus. It was the time when signboards all over the university read, in bold letters, SAY NO TO CULTS. The Black Axe, the Buccaneers, and the Pirates were the best known. They may once have been benign fraternities, but they had evolved and were now “cults”; eighteen-year-olds who had mastered the swagger of American rap videos were undergoing secret and strange intiations that sometimes left one or two of them dead at Odim Hill.
In a sweep of the cults, the police arrest Nnamabia, and the rest of the story is about the family’s visits to him in jail and efforts to get him released. The dynamics slowly change, and Nnamabia himself undergoes the most dramatic change of all. But I’ll leave you to discover what it was; needless to say, by the end of the story I was simply in awe. The final paragraph is so powerful, although I won’t quote it hear. Seriously, this one’s available for free, so there’s no reason for you not to go read it! Then come back and tell what you thought of it in the comments. :)
“On Monday of Last Week”
In case you think there’s a certain order, I’m following that from the Table of Contents; I can’t really rank these four, since they’re all amazing in completely different ways. “On Monday of Last Week” follows Kamara, a Nigerian woman who has immigrated to America to join her husband. Despite her master’s degree, she takes a job as a nanny in an upper-class household. The father, who is the involved parent, is a Jewish lawyer, while the mother, an African American, is an artist who locks herself away in her studio. The son, Josh is seven. I loved this one, because while it dealt with ‘themes’ (race, liberalism, sexuality, etc.), Kamara and her story were still completely authentic; there’s no statement making. Once again, the opening lines immediately grabbed my attention:
Since Monday of last week, Kamara had begun to stand in front of mirrors. She would turn from side to side, examining her lumpy middle and imagining it flat as a book cover, and then she would close her eyes and imagine Tracy caressing it with those paint-stained fingers.
I also found Kamara’s thoughts on Josh’s mixed heritage fascinating:
Kamara watched Josh slot in a Rugrats DVD and lie down on the couch, a slight child with olive sink and tangled curls. “Half-caste” was what they had called children like him back in Nigeria, and the word had meant an automatic cool, light-skinned good looks, trips abroad to visit white grandparents. Kamara had always resented the glamour of half-castes. But in American, “half-caste” was a bad word.
Once again, this showed the real power of short stories, to capture people and situations in such a short amount of time, to make us care for them and drive us along with a plot, then end it appropriately. The ending felt spot on here. I just Adichie’s subtlety, her willingness to trust the reader to fill in the blanks.
“Jumping Monkey Hill”
Ok, I know I just said I couldn’t rank them, but I’m pretty sure “Jumping Monkey Hill” was my favourite of the favourites. ;) In an Adichie interview I read, she called it the most auto-biographical, and I guessed that just from reading it. The emotions, the energy is a lot more raw (Adichie said she wrote it from rage), a total kind of ‘f you’ to certain types of Westerns and their approach to Africa and African literature. I adored it. It’s set in Cape Town, at a retreat called the Africa Writers Workshop. Writers from several different countries (Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa) have been brought together with the expectation that they’ll each produce a short story under the direction of Edward Campbell, a Brit who has created the workshop and whose ‘lifelong passion’ has been African literature. Ujunwa is a young Nigerian author, and the focus of the story. As the week goes along, she gets more and more angry at the racism and sexism she encounters. Additionally, once they begin workshopping stories, Edward shoots down those that are based on every day life and applauds the violent ones. While most of the African writers bond over their disgust at Edward’s behavior during breakfast and dinner, they remain silent while he’s around.
“But why do we say nothing?” Ujunwa asked. She raised her voice and looked at the others. “Why do we always say nothing?”
I can’t capture the magic of the story without simply typing out the entire thing, but trust me, it alone is worth grabbing the collection for.
The last of my favourites is the only one that hasn’t been previously published: “The Shivering.” It’s about a Nigerian student at Princeton who, after a horrific plane crash occurs in Nigeria, bonds with one of her apartment neighbours who is also Nigerian. This is also the most difficult one for me to discuss, but as the story unfolds who learn more and more about each of the two characters, and way its revealed is just magical. So I’m hesitant to talk about it at all. Here’s what I will say: the dialogue in incredible. The characters felt completely real, as did their relationship. And you should get a hold of the book so you can read this story.
The final story in the book, “The Headstrong Historian,” was also wonderful. But I’d already read and reviewed it (it’s available for free online as well), so read my review if you wish. I hope I’ve convinced you that Adichie is one of the finest writers I’ve read, and that you too should become acquainted with her work. Sooner, rather than later!