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Nothing short of sparkling

Hard on the heels of the success of her novels Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, 31-year-old Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's first short-story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, confirms her status as a first-rate storyteller.

In the sublime title story, a young Nigerian émigré, a winner of an American visa lottery, expresses her choking loneliness as she scrapes for a living and for love in Connecticut: "At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that nearly choked you before you fell asleep."

Set in America and Nigeria, these sparkling stories explore loneliness, identity, violence, betrayal, middle-class obsessions, the bond between parents and children, and the emigrant and colonial experiences.

Adichie makes no effort to conceal her jaundiced attitude to the male of the species, especially husbands.

Though Adichie divides her time between the two countries, she casts a fearless and caustic eye on the corruption that Nigerians endured under a military dictatorship and on, what she perceives to be, the fatuousness of the American way of life.

Scrutiny of the cultural and religious aspects of the colonial experience will be of interest to Irish readers in the final story, 'The Headstrong Historian'

Here, Nwamgba, fearful that her son will be abducted and sold into slavery, decides education in English is the only guarantee of the boy's future.

To her dismay, an Irish missionary priest christens her son.

As he grows up, the son gradually rejects his culture and his mother. He even stops eating her food, because, he said, it was sacrificed to idols.

Then she loses her daughter-in-law (who is sent to Irish nuns to learn how to become a good Christian wife) to "a mental space that was foreign to her".

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However, as Nwamgba lies on her deathbed, her granddaughter, a trained historian, arrives to provide a happy twist to a sorry tale.

Fans of Adichie's novels won't be disappointed, because each of the 12 short stories in this book is a mini-novel to which readers can add their own twists, turns and outcomes.

-- PH

A number of English-born James Lasdun's stories have been the starting point for films, the best known being Bertolucci's 1998 feature Besieged.

The son of architect Sir Denys Lasdun, who designed London's National Theatre, his stories are set in England, Europe and America, where he lives at present.

He won the inaugural National Short Story Award in 2007 for his story An Anxious Man.

It is included here and it isn't even the best story, which will give some idea of the quality of the rest.

In many of the stories, a moment of panic occurs, and this moment forces the protagonist to reconsider.

In The Half-Sister, a music teacher gets paired with the unattractive half-sister of the boys he is tutoring. In The Incalculable Life Gesture, a man changes his attitude towards a needy sister upon discovery of a lump on his neck.

And in Annals of the Honorary Secretary there is an echo of the playful Banvillian touch of stopping you mid-sentence: "an approximation of the state of eudaimonia considered necessary to the sacred moment".

In Cleanness, a man gets lost on his unhurried way to his father's wedding to a much younger woman and calls at a farmyard for directions, where he recognises a tractor: "then suddenly remembered where he had seen the tractor before. It was what he had opened his eyes to on the nursery floor where he and the children's Dutch nanny had first had sex. Unlike the one here at the farm, it was a toy, pedal-powered, but for an instant it had seemed vast and strangely menacing, perhaps because his three-year-old son was riding it".

That sudden shift is typical of Lasdun: a sense of Russian gloom . . . drift in the ether . . . Alfred Hitchcock. Stories in the classical mode -- four stars. A wonderful writer.

-- ND

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