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Originally published Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Adichie's 'The Thing Around Your Neck': stories of dislocation and 'future grief'

"The Thing Around Your Neck," a new story collection by the award-winning Nigerian-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, portrays lives irrevocably changed by political and social turbulence. Adichie appears June 29 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The author of "The Thing Around Your Neck" will read at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

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"The Thing Around Your Neck"

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Knopf, 218 pp., $24.95

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an award-winning Nigerian-born writer. Her two previous novels, "Purple Hibiscus" and "Half of a Yellow Sun," are set in Nigeria and focused on families living and dying against a backdrop of roiling political and social turbulence.

"Half of a Yellow Sun" is a sweeping saga of the Biafran War (which happened before the author was born). An ambitious blend of human melodrama and historical document, it is fascinating but uneven: The two halves of the story don't always mesh.

In her new book, a short-story collection titled "The Thing around Your Neck," Adichie's voice is much sharper. The distilled world of the short story suits her beautifully: She shows a rare talent for finding the images and gestures that etch a narrative moment unforgettably in the reader's memory.

In one story, two women, strangers thrust together by circumstance, smile wanly as they part after sharing a harrowing experience. One notices that the other has "the beginning of future grief on her face."

Like the author, many of the characters in the book divide their time between Nigeria and the United States. The collection resonates with an aching undercurrent of chill, dislocation and loss of identity.

In the powerful title story, told from an arresting second-person point of view, a young woman named Akunna comes to America after winning the visa lottery. She moves in with relatives in a small town in Maine, but when her uncle makes sexual overtures to her she leaves immediately.

"You ended up in Connecticut, in another little town, because it was the last stop of the Greyhound bus you got on."

Completely alone, Akunna sends money — but no information, not even her address — home to Nigeria from her job as a waitress. "There was nothing to write about." Even when she has stories to tell — about the real America she is discovering — she has no one to tell them to, and her sense of isolation is overwhelming: "At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep."

She slowly opens up after meeting a wealthy young white man who wants to look beyond the usual stereotypes. Unlike most of the Americans she meets — "they thought that every black person with a foreign accent was Jamaican" — he knows and cares that Nigeria is a huge, complex country of different religions and ethnicities.

Despite her conflicted feelings — she is baffled by the useless presents he gives her, and angry at his mix of arrogance and kindness — their relationship begins to ground her in a new existence.

Several other stories in the collection explore similar themes of human connections forged despite ethnic and cultural differences, even in the midst of horrific violence. In "A Private Experience, " Chika, a young, educated, upper-class Christian Igbo woman huddles in a tiny shop with a Muslim Hausa woman who sells onions. A simple act of common decency brings them together as riots rage outside.

There are a couple of pieces that aren't as strong as the rest, but on the whole this is a very solid collection, with several exquisite stories that will take you to places you didn't know existed.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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