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“Cell One,” “On Monday of Last Week,” “Jumping Monkey Hill,” and “The Shivering”

July 6, 2009

the-thing-around-your-neckI 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!

“Cell One”

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 Shivering”
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!

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. July 6, 2009 8:17 am

    I’ve never read Adichie, though I do have Half A Yellow Sun on my TBR list (haven’t been able to get a copy of it yet). But I loved the quotes you posted from the short stories you love, and was really captivated and impressed by the writing, so I think I’ll have to make a greater effort to read this author in the future. To start, I’m going to check out the link to One Cell that you posted. Thanks for the great review! Your enthusiasm for Adichie is really infectious!

  2. July 6, 2009 9:18 am

    I haven’t read any of her books before, but now I’m intrigued! Which would you recommend starting with?

  3. July 6, 2009 11:43 am

    I’ve truly been meaning to read her novels. Honest. It’s just one of those times when I know in my heart that I absolutely won’t be disappointed. And yet I’ve yet to pick one up. I just might need smacked upside the head, huh? But you know, now I think I’m even more interested in this short story collection. Which would you recommend starting with…this book or one of the novels?

  4. July 6, 2009 12:05 pm

    I haven’t read this book but I would start with her novels. Um, both Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun are good so pick whatever one you like the look of.

    I’m going to read that short story now.

  5. July 6, 2009 12:51 pm

    I’ve had her novels on my list of tbr’s. Thanks for pointing to some of her short stories online. I’ll have to go take a look.

  6. July 6, 2009 1:58 pm

    Eva, you are one of the people who has me convinced to read Adiche “sooner, rather than later.” I love the way “One Cell” starts–her characterizations are wonderful (“my father asked him to write a report…”)–and am cursing myself for allowing my New Yorker subscription to lapse. oh well. Thanks for the review. Which book do you recommend to begin with?

  7. July 6, 2009 2:25 pm

    These sound great! Thanks for including the link to Cell One.

  8. July 6, 2009 2:25 pm

    Steph, I hope you enjoy “One Cell”!

    Brittany, it depends. Personally, I love reading new authors in their published order, so if you’re like me start with Purple Hibiscus. If you’re more into award-winners, Half of a Yellow Sun took the Orange Prize. Both deal with dark topics (abuse and war respectively), so make sure you’re prepared. But I don’t usually like dark books and I love these!

    Debi, I think what I wrote to Brittany applies to you. :D The short story collection was less depressing, though, so it depends on your mood! hehe

    Uenohama, hope you enjoy the story!

    Terri, great. :)

    DS, like what I said to Brittany, lol. I loved them both equally…Purple Hibiscus might win by a whisker, but that’s it. :D

    JoAnn, I hope you enjoy the story!

  9. July 6, 2009 6:48 pm

    I have had Adichie on my TBR for a long time. I finally read here short story for a Short Story Monday back in May. Here’s my review:

    http://teddyrose.blogspot.com/2009/05/short-story-monday-private-experience.html

    This collection sounds wonderful! Thanks for the awesome review. I just printed “Cell One” to read.

    Here is what I reviewed this week:

    http://teddyrose.blogspot.com/2009/05/short-story-monday-private-experience.html

  10. July 7, 2009 4:16 am

    These sound so good!! I’m supposed to be on a book buying ban until the end of the summer at least, but maybe I could squeeze Purple Hibiscus in before I actually begin to enforce it? I’m hopeless, I know

  11. Carol permalink
    July 7, 2009 9:35 am

    I never would have found this on my own. Thanks for the review.

  12. July 7, 2009 10:34 am

    That last one sounds really good!

  13. July 7, 2009 4:53 pm

    I have not read Adichie, not in English nor in my native Finnish (Half of a Yellow Sun is translated in to Finnish), but now I but a hold on these short stories in our library here. Your review got me hooked! :)

    Greetings,
    Tiina

  14. July 7, 2009 6:23 pm

    The quotations from these short stories, especially those of Cell One, reminds me of how overwhelming it was to read Half of a Yellow Sun. The subject is overwhelming but her writing is very robust.

  15. July 7, 2009 10:57 pm

    I haven’t read this one yet even though I loved Half of A Yellow Sun. It sounds like you would recommend I read Purple Hibiscus first??

  16. July 8, 2009 7:37 pm

    Wow. I almost never get all jumping up and down excited about a short story collection, but you have me totally interested in this one. I want to know what’s going to happen next!

  17. July 9, 2009 12:35 pm

    I was so excited to hear this collection had come out because like you, I’ve loved her novels. What a bummer you didn’t find it to be quite up to her style. I’m curious if she has another novel in the works though.

    I’m definitely planning on reading this one and then I’ll have share notes with you :)

  18. January 26, 2011 6:49 pm

    I Love This Book!!!

  19. Marian Anaele permalink
    March 2, 2011 2:16 am

    I haven’t read this one yet even though i loved all her novels. She is really a great writer. Am so intersted in reading this short story.

  20. Anonymous permalink
    May 13, 2012 4:41 am

    Adichie is indeed,an incredible writer. Her narrative trust is one of the best of the young African writers. She captivates you with her first sentence that you find the story difficult to let go. Check out “Cell One”…magical!

  21. Anonymous permalink
    May 13, 2012 4:41 am

    Adichie is indeed,an incredible writer. Her narrative thrust is one of the best of the young African writers. She captivates you with her first sentence that you find the story difficult to let go. Check out “Cell One”…magical!

  22. Nonso Uzozie permalink
    May 13, 2012 4:46 am

    Adichie is indeed,an incredible writer. Her narrative thrust is one of the best of the young African writers. She captivates you with her first sentence that you find the story difficult to let go. Check out “Cell One”…magical!

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