In “Birdsong,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie does a good job describing the characters in ways that make them come alive. The story starts with a young woman stuck in traffic in Lagos. She sees another woman stuck in traffic and in her imagination, she sees the woman as her former lover’s wife.
At first, I glanced away, but then I stared back, at the haughty silkiness of the weave that fell to her shoulders in loose curls, the kind of extension called Brazilian Hair and paid for in dollars at Victoria Island hair salons; at her fair skin, which had the plastic sheen that comes from expensive creams; and at her hand, forefinger bejewelled, which she raised to wave a magazine hawker away, with the ease of a person used to waving people away. She was beautiful, or perhaps she was just so unusual-looking, with wide-set eyes sunk deep in her face, that “beautiful” was the easiest way of describing her. She was the kind of woman I imagined my lover’s wife was, a woman for whom things were done.
The story goes on regarding her relationship with her lover, a foreigner working overseas from a wealthy background.
…when he first walked into our office, a lean, dark man with a purple tie and a moneyed manner. He was full of the glossy self-regard of men who shrugged off their importance in a way that only emphasized it. Our boss shook his hand with both hands and said, “Welcome, sir, it is good to see you, sir, how are you doing, sir, please come and sit down, sir.” Chikwado was there when he looked at me and I looked at him and then he smiled, of all things, a warm, open smile. She heard when he said to our boss, “My family lives in America,” a little too loudly, for my benefit, with that generic foreign accent of the worldly Nigerian, which, I would discover later, disappeared when he became truly animated about something.
The descriptions of people and how they interact are what stand out for me in this story. The rest of it seems too predictable, or just doesn’t have enough room to explore. The narrator is a strong, feminist woman in a country where that’s not readily accepted. She’s fallen for a married man, and those stories are usually predictable. In this case it was. Her anger (at herself and at the man?) flares in the workplace and she confronts some of the issues which bother her. But, what does it matter? In the end, it seems like nothing she’s done matters.
Q&A with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie