Season of Stories: ‘Cell One’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

You may remember that before Christmas, I started to post some brief reviews of the stories I had received in my inbox through Penguin Random House’s Season of Stories initiative. That initiative is over for now, but I still wanted to finish writing my thoughts down about these pieces of short fiction. However, whilst the first three reviews I posted were in the order that I had received them, these next ones will not be: the reason for this is simply that the stories I had strong feelings one way or another about turned out to be the quickest reviews to write. I’m currently reading one of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, so her contribution to the initiative seems like a fitting place to start.

‘Cell One’, taken from Adichie’s collection of short fiction in The Thing Around Your Neck, tells the story of a Nigerian university-based family, seen through the eyes of the daughter, shaken by the arrest of their son and his experience in a prison cell. Adichie starts the story in dramatic fashion: a throwaway comment about a very real burglary is followed by a detailed account of a burglary faked by the narrator’s brother so he could take his mother’s jewelry. From there, the reader sees through the narrator’s eyes as her brother is arrested, later down the line, and his growing shock at injustice as he experiences life in Cell One.

It goes without saying that Adichie’s writing is intensely readable: her characters are engaging and relatable, inhabiting a world brought to life on the page. The changes that Nnamabia goes through, seen through the narrator’s eyes in each family visit to the prison, are subtle but nonetheless clear. Adichie manages to cleverly balance the objective reality of the injustices in the justice system with the subjective experiences of this family, creating a strong narrative out of a complex theme.

I mentioned in my last set of reviews that the installment format did not work for all the short stories in this initiative. However, for ‘Cell One’ the installment format was a real strength: the first installment served as a taste of the story, leaving the reader on the tantalising information that Nnamabia would be arrested. The remaining three installments were less distinct, but the writing was such that I was constantly wondering what would happen in the next installment. Overall, this was definitely an enjoyable read and I am definitely considering getting hold of The Thing Around Your Neck to read more of Adichie’s short fiction.

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