This is a superb collection of twelve thoughtful, well-written stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all. They are slice-of-life with an introspective feel, with characters who are mostly observing circumstances unfold around them with a seeming passivity that belies the strength it takes to endure and not be folded up into these circumstances.
The stories are populated by a wide spectrum of characters (varied by gender, economic level, occupation, the works), and we follow them as they deal with the consequences of war, relationship ordeals, the loneliness of assimilating to a different culture; just all manner of life upheavals. They are all unique, told from a variety of POVs, including two of them in the second person perspective, which was quite interesting and delightful, because I rarely come across such.
My favorite story in the collection is The Arrangers of Marriage. I first read this story in the Granta Book of the African Short Story and I was very sure then that there would be more Adichie in my life. Everything about it just blew me away. Rereading it now after more than two years, it has lost none of its initial impact. For me, it is a very evocative and relatable story, not in the terms of Chinaza’s relationship with her new (practically a stranger) husband, but with her experience of coming to the United States, to Brooklyn, New York. A lot of her experiences, as her husband clues her in to her new way of life, mirrored my own when I first visited the US, also Brooklyn, New York. All the talk of Flatbush, and Key Foods, and how to do the grocery shopping, and how to take the bus – these were all things my sister-in-law initiated me into. Basically how to assimilate, even while losing parts of yourself in the process. While my time there was short, it was still a little arduous. I felt empathy for Chinaza as she underwent her own initiation, and with an unsympathetic spouse to boot.
"Our neighborhood was called Flatbush, my new husband told me, as we walked, hot and sweaty, down a noisy street that smelled of fish left out too long before refrigeration. He wanted to show me how to do the grocery shopping and how to use the bus.
Inside the air-conditioned bus, he showed me where to pour in the coins, how to press the tape on the wall to signal my stop.
“This is not like Nigeria, where you shout out to the conductor [*],” he said, sneering, as though he was the one who had invented the superior American system."
[*This is what we do here as well, which is why I absolutely hate using the bus system in any other country but my own. I’m always terrified I’ll forget to press the strip at the right place, find myself blocks away from my intended stop and I, being navigationally challenged, will be lost, lost, lost. Yikes!]
Not just this story but most of the others have other tidbits (especially cultural) that are so similar to my own Afro-Caribbean context, it was amazing. In The American Embassy, Ugonna is standing in line, waiting to get into the US Embassy, where she’ll apply for a visa. There is a lot of talk all around as applicants engage with each other, and attempt to include her, but her mind is distracted by the terrible events of the past couple of days. At one point, the woman in front of her gets annoyed and says to her, “I have been talking to you and you just look at me like a moo-moo!” When I read this line, my mouth must’ve hung open for a full 30 seconds. I never thought I would ever come across a novel (except maybe a St Lucian one) where someone would be referred to as a ‘moo-moo’. I honestly thought that was a distinctly Lucian thing. Ah, the things you learn …
If I had one complaint, it would be that some of the stories end a little too abruptly, just as I was getting invested in the characters. But I would say this is a personal thing; I like closure ;-)
Once again, this is an excellent collection, and recommended to all readers. You won’t regret it.
“Udenna never said ‘I love you’ to me because he thought it was a cliché. Once I told him I was sorry he felt bad about something and he started shouting and said I should not use an expression like ‘I’m sorry you feel that way’ because it was unoriginal. He used to make me feel that nothing I said was witty enough or sarcastic enough or smart enough. He was always struggling to be different, even when it didn’t matter. It was as if he was performing his life instead of living his life.”” – from The Shivering