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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Checking Out" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Each week I review the short fiction from the latest issue of The New Yorker. However, since the issue comes out on Monday, and I get it any time between Wednesday and Saturday, sometimes the reviews are a bit late...

(Okay, I'm reeeally far behind here, so this will be brief. This is the story from the Mar. 18th issue.)

One of the great things about fiction, even in this age of hyper-available information, is that it can transport you to unfamiliar places or, even more significantly, show you life through an unfamiliar perspective. "Checking Out" is both of those. Set in working-class London, the story follows six months in the life of Obinze, a young man from Nigeria who has come to the country on his mother's student visa and is attempting to have a "sham marriage" as they call it in Britain, to a U.K. citizen in order to get his permanent papers.

I know nothing about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, other than that she's Nigerian and she writes in pretty spare prose (always a way to my heart) and has a good eye for detail, especially the subtle kind that indicates trenchant observations about people without over doing it.

Adichie builds the tension nicely by flashing back to Obinze's pre-London days, in Nigeria, when his mother gives him her academic visa so he can travel to London and stay for six months, in an attempt to ultimately make it to America.  She follows him through a few nervous stints at illegally-obtained jobs, and introduces us to the types of people he has to meet in his tour through the not criminal but not exactly legitimate under-class.

The only thing she doesn't really seem to capture too well is Obinze's character. We see Obinze's world reflected quite well; we get good, sharp detail about the woman he almost marries, about his co-workers with whom he becomes friends, even the Angolans with whom he arranges the sham marriage. My sense, however, is that in the process of trying to "fit-in" and not cause waves, and therefore pass through to citizenship undetected, Obinze lost part of himself. This could be why Adichie treats him like merely a lens with which to view this strange world.

Obinze's loss of humanity is represented when, after he's arrested, his court-appointed lawyer tells him he has no case and will be "removed" from the country almost immediately. Obinze reflects on the word "removed" as he realizes his adventure in London is over, as well as, possibly his dream of ultimately making it to America.


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