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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Thing Around Your Neck

January 29, 2010

So, this is a happy blog of happy things. It’s here to keep myself and Kirsten happy, and also, we hope, to keep other people happy too. Because the world is often not a happy place.

But you know what is happy-making? Books. Books are happy-making. Um, apart from those really creepy ones.

Anyway. Because books are one of the best ways I have to relax, and also because some time ago I got really fucking fed up of noticing the lack of good, believable female lead characters in just about every form of storytelling bar chick lit, I decided that a sensible thing for me to do would be to actively seek out some well-written books about women. Preferably written by women. And not chick lit, where by “chick lit” I mean books about young slim straight cis able-bodied middle-class white English women, usually living either in London or in some weird small town in one of the Home Counties, generally agonizing over their lack of a hot man for hot hot mansex. I was a bit fed up of that.

So, I went a bit overboard buying books that seemed to fit this description – that is, books written by and/or about women, that aren’t chick lit. And one of these new books on my shelf is a compilation of short stories called The Thing Around Your Neck. The author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has also written two novels – Half of a Yellow Sun, and Purple Hibiscus, both of which appeared in bestsellers lists. These are now on my list of Books Wot I Need To Buy. Because her writing is stunning.

There was a feeling of truthfulness to each story that I just wasn’t prepared for. I suppose, reading fiction, you get used to the idea that it is fiction. I’d say that’s particularly true of the fiction that I read most – historical, sci fi and fantasy. With historical fiction, you know that it’s only a story; it’s made up, if you like. There might, if you’re lucky, be some primary evidence to support it (and Kirsten could probably write her entire thesis on this, such is the magnificence of her history-related knowledge) but even then, the author will have had to guess at bits. Even the non-fiction history books do this! And with sci fi and fantasy, the clue’s in the names.

But this was different. I don’t mean that the stories were actually true, although they might be. But I’ve got no way of knowing that. What I mean is that her writing – deceptively simple, with short, succinct sentences – felt true. And the direct approach that Adichie takes in her writing adds to that. She writes as though she could be saying “here is a story that could have happened; I would like to share it with you, not necessarily because it is a nice story with a happy ending, but because it is important”.

The women in her stories are the same. Whether it’s a young woman bluntly telling the reader how her thieving brother affected her family, or an old, dying woman holding tightly onto her granddaughter’s hand, they feel real. They say or think or do things which are not always nice, but always make sense, they deal with a variety of life events in a variety of ways; in short, they act like real people.

The stories were not always nice. The people were not always nice. But the women were the lead characters in their own lives; they weren’t anything out of the ordinary – as so many of the women in fantasy novels are – but they were unique characters nevertheless. I will read and reread their stories over and over again, and I’ll probably get something different from them every time I do.

Perhaps this isn’t a book that will be to everybody’s taste. Part of the reason I can get something different from each story each time is because a lot of the endings are very deliberately ambiguous, and that can be difficult to read, sometimes. It’s what I’d call a “thinky-thoughts-mood” book. A book for those times that you want to sit quietly and consider what you’ve read, as opposed for the times that you just want to read something fairy-tale-fluffy to wind down for the night.

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