“She was not merely resting her eyes on the car next to hers, as people often do in Lagos traffic; she was looking at me.”
It’s this look which occasions Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story “Birdsong”; the narrative unfolds while the two women are looking at each other, although the reader is privy only to the thoughts, impressions and memories of one woman. All we have of the other woman is her look and, later, “the slightest of smiles”.
It’s not a lot upon which to pin a story, a look exchanged in a traffic jam, but the author hooks your interest at the end of the paragraph, moving from a description of the look to “She was the kind of woman I imagined my lover’s wife was, a woman for whom things were done.”
And so you want to know more, and the author offers it immediately in the next paragraph with “My lover. It sounds a little melodramatic, but I never knew how to refer to him. ‘Boyfriend’ seemed wrong for an urbane man of forty-five…” and we’re off. Because you want to know still more, and the narrator is prepared to deliver.
Not only her lover, but also her co-worker, Chikwado, take shape in the story, although the narrative is comprised of remembered scenes and dialogue, although the strongest connection is with the narrator, she at whom the other woman is looking. Ironically, the reader, too, is looking, gaze held steadily from beginning to end.
Half of a Yellow Sun was one of my favourite novels from 2007, so my expectations of this story were high: I was not disappointed.
Have you read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Do you plan to? Have you seen the Q&A about this story?