Review: "Birdsong" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
New Yorker fiction | September 20, 2010 issue
Approximate word count: 5600
I liked this better on the second read, but Frank Conroy said you should never count on a second read, because if a story doesn't grab you by the hair the first time through, there won't be one. Except in a case like this, where I'm reviewing it. It's not that it's a bad story, but there's nothing that stands out about it quite enough for me to recommend reading it (which is what a green light would mean).
It's the old "bitter other woman" tale, told from her point of view. In Lagos, Nigeria, the narrator is involved with a well-heeled married man whose wife is living in the US. For more than a year she lives with him in his estate on an island until realizing (who saw this coming?) that she will never have him. She breaks up with him. A story that has been told many, many times, and it's too bad there are no surprises to be had here. Sure, it's unusual to read about upper/middle class Africans, but something like that alone shouldn't recommend a story. You're busy!
I think the best thing about this, and which might make it worth reading (for writers looking to add to their bags of tricks) is the use of well-chosen details that add to the theme and setting. The details in this case come from the narrator, stuck in traffic, watching her fellow commuters interact with "hawkers" who approach the trapped drivers and try to sell them stuff. She notes how nobody trusts each other and everybody is wary. A guy buying a phone card makes the hawker wait while he verifies the number on his phone. She knows the bottles of beer being sold are warm but have been dipped in water to make them look cold. Her car is hit twice in the story, once by a motorbike (whose driver nervously proclaims there was no damage and speeds off) and once by a taxi (whose driver gets out and yells at her).
Her coworkers tie that vignette back to the theme -- that an unmarried woman gets no respect in Lagos. Her lover's driver is so contemptuous he will hardly speak to her. Neither will the waiter at the only restaurant her lover feels it's safe to take her to. All this leads the narrator to realize that although technically she is enjoying the partial companionship of dating a married man, she really has no power -- just as, in general, women have little power in the world around her.
But this is a short story, not a sociological case study. Something should happen -- she should make a choice, do something dramatic, get her freak on, something! Unfortunately she just meekly backs out of the whole thing and takes it out on her colleagues one day by being cranky. Finally she yells impotently at the woman in the car stuck next to her in the traffic jam. The woman -- all hoity-toity and superior-looking (as she imagines his wife is) -- has been staring at her all this time. "What is your problem? Why have you been staring at me? Do I owe you?" The woman just drives away as the traffic begins to clear.
That's a pretty weak ending. The emotion is never really released or resolved in this story, in fact. That's why I found it ultimately unsatisfying. Adichie clearly has the chops, with an Orange Prize and a MacArthur fellowship under her belt. The writing itself is excellent. But the story lacks punch.