Nuggets In Chimamanda Adichie's 'Cell One' -A Review


It’s a crime to review the twelve stories in ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’ as one. That is because each of the stories in this Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 218-page short story collection, published in Nigeria in 2009 by Farafina, has interesting materials for writers that can be overlooked in the process. The nuggets woven into them, make each story deserving of a review in its own right. And that, not only for the sake of each story, but for the sake of a writer who needs tools that make for excellent writing. Such tools are the things to be dissected in the story, Cell One, authored by a writer whom Pa Chinua Achebe once described as having "the gift of ancient story tellers."

Cell One was originally published by The New Yorker, that famous American literary journal, which published works are ever a recommendation letter to publishers. Why did this journal accept a story whose author had, to the hearing of this writer, once said, "when I look back at some of the stories I wrote when my work were being rejected, I discovered that they were really bad?" What did the editors at The New Yorker see in Cell One that an average reader or writer of prose may easily overlook, but which is useful to his writing? What are the articles of faith of good writing present in this story that makes it a signature prose of this Nigeria’s Orange and Commonwealth Prize winner?

"The first time our house was robbed, it was our neighbour Osita who climbed in through the dining room window and stole…" was the way Cell One began. Compare this to ‘It was our neighbour, Osita, who climbed in through the dining room window and stole, the first time our house was robbed.’ Another reads, "Nnamabia looked just like my mother, with that honey-fair complexion, large eyes, and a generous mouth that curved perfectly." The overall effect of sentences written this way is that it is crisp and racy. It leaves no bends, no detours, and it sustains the reader’s attention, which is easier to lose, had it been written as, "With that honey-fair complexion, large eyes, and a generous mouth that curved perfectly, Nnamabia looked just like my mother." This is a sample of passive voice. Active voice at the beginning of a story sets a racy pace, catches reader’s attention, helps maintain it, and have him hooked.

The contradictions packed into each human being is also caught in this story. No man is perfect, is a well-known saying. There are many writings out there that take a single view of a character, just a single view. If a character is made bad, he is thoroughly bad; he is made to have no emotion, no sense of humour, and as such, no humanity. This does not reflect reality. The manner basic human essence is caught in Cell One brings the characters home, it makes them resonate, possibly making it possible for a reader to identify himself in any of the characters. It makes such a reader realize that he is also a bundle of contradiction he is all smile, all loving, caring this moment; but the next moment, he is all frown, bitchy, disliking, or even cruel, inhuman. Take the narrator of the story for instance, she knew that her brother, Nnamabia stole and sold what he stole, yet he loved and admired him. She acknowledged on several occasions that he was good looking. She knew one of his brother’s friends who also stole things in the neigbourhood, yet she secretly admired his style, loved and wished he came to ask her through she was less than 15 years of age for her heart.

There were other moments when she became exasperated with her brother though, "His tone (Nnamabia) was histrionic. I wanted to ask him to shut up…because he did not understand how lucky he was that the policemen allowed him to come out and enjoy our food." That was on one occasion when she and her parents went to visit Nnamabia who had been arrested and locked up in a police cell. On another occasion, she refused to go visit her brother, broke the car windscreen, and managed to prevent her parents from going to visit Nnamabia. She went with them to see him the following day though, and she feared for Nnamabia after she discovered that he could have been killed in Cell One. In this family of four, the author played on human emotional swings, a thing that makes the story resonate, as well as get the reader to empathize.

And there is this thing about Cell One, a notorious cell, where many lost their lives. The cell was central to the story, but the author never entered it with the reader, not for ones. Rather she showed the cell based on what happened to those who went in there. This is an effective method of writing about scenes that may be somewhat gruesome. Yes, the reader might have been taken into the cell, the criminal treatment given inmates in there such as head-bashing, vicious kicks, flowing of blood might have been described, yet the reader may remain un-shocked. His emotions untouched. With her style, the author kept her reader imagining what took place in the cell, making him expectant to be taken in there at any moment. This is seen in the careful, bit-by-bit release of information about occurrences in the cell that the author adopted. This approach is particularly effective where a reader has witnessed police brutality. Show him more of it on the pages of a book, and he may not be shocked no matter the tool the author uses in describing gruesomeness in police cells.

There is also the use of suspense. Nnamabia’s parents and his sister arrived one day to see him, hopeful to have him released from cell following an order from higher authority. But they discovered that their boy had disappeared. It is worth pointing out that some little details that appear on the surface as insignificant in the body of the story, ended up leaving lasting tastes in the mouth of a reader; they are the best-remembered details in this work. For instance, though Nnamabia’s sister knew that one of the boys in the neighbourhood broke into houses and stole things, she thought, "His shirts were always sharply ironed; I used to look across the hedge and see him and close my eyes and imagine that he was walking toward me to come and claim me as his. He never noticed me". It is important to state that this was all that the author noted about this infatuation, then she left it, making it stand out in the story. These are the stuff this story and many others in The Thing Around Your Neck are made of, and they answer why their author wins international awards by the bagful. They are nuggets that a reader/writer should not overlook.

It is noteworthy that, in this story, the author made Nnamabia, as a character, emerge on a higher plane a sober, remorseful, and obviously more mature teenager made so by the things he witnessed in the cells. He even fought with policemen, wanting to make them treat an old man in his cell with some dignity, an encounter that could have caused him his life. Nnamabia, young, carefree Nnamabia fought on behalf of another man. The plane lower or higher at which characters emerge in a work of fiction is important to its overall success.

Ajibade, a Consultant writer, lives in Abuja.