Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Birdsong”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Birdson” was originally published in the September 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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If you’ve read Ngozi Adichie’s short stories before, this might not be that new to you. It involves Lagos and infidelity. That’s not to say that it isn’t a pretty good short story, but it isn’t one that I’ll remember for long — at least, that’s what I suspect at this point. She’s done it better before.

“Birdsong” begins while our narrator, a young, single, Nigerian woman, is stopped at a traffic light. She looks to the car pulled up next to her and sees a wealthy , chauffeured woman looking at her. Imagining that this beautiful, obviously cared for woman was exactly the type of woman (perhaps was the woman) married to the narrator’s lover. The narrator begins to think back on the origin and fate of her affair.

It didn’t start out well. Those around her wondered when she would begin to settle down. You can have an affair later.

Even my love spoke of this desire. “You’ll want to settle down soon,” he said. “I just want you to know I’m not going to stand in your way.” We were naked in bed; it was our first time. . . . He was telling me that he played the game better than others, while I had not yet conceived of the game itself. From the moment I met him, I had had the sensation of possibility, but for him the path was already closed, had indeed never been open; there was no room for things to sweep in and disrupt.

The story then looks at the “rituals of distrust.” It is interesting, and the writing is nice, but I didn’t find this story particularly illuminating. Even sentences like this one — “You know, I have had only two affairs since I got married. I’m not like other men.” — don’t have much to offer when Ngozi Adichie has done this before.

I certainly liked this one better than the last two stories, and I think many others will like it much more than I, but I’m anxious to move on.

7 thoughts on “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Birdsong””

  1. New fiction forum up. I have read some of Ngozi Adichie’s stories before, to varying effect, though I am looking forward to reading this one.

  2. My brief thoughts above. I didn’t have much to say about the story. I thought it was fairly well done but not new, even for Ngozi Adichie.

  3. Ken says:

    I’ve never read her before so I didn’t find it repetitive in terms of her oeuvre but the story of adultery and the affair is certainly pretty old hat. What I enjoyed, though, was all the criticisms she has of her society: it’s religious and sexual conservatism, patriarchy, chaotic traffic, dishonesty etc. I kept thinking of the narrator of Phillip Roth’s “Indignation” repeating that titular word over and over while sitting in chapel when I would hear the character. I agree this is an improvement over the last two stories but nothing outstanding.

  4. Aaron says:

    Can you recommend a story of hers that is similar in subject to this and better than this one? Having never read her work before–or perhaps just cresting after a long series of bland stories–I was impressed by the tale, and I didn’t find it cliche or old hat at all. I mean, the story isn’t really about the affair at all, and it’s not the man who ends it, or the wife who finds out — and isn’t THAT usually how these things play out? Here, you’ve got a woman realizing not just how trivial she is to the man, but to her culture. Even the cock-with-a-dick joke is not hers and hers alone.

    http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/2010/10/short-day-chimamanda-ngozi-adichies.html

  5. Adam says:

    Like Ken, I like the perspective that the story gives on a place I know very little about, but I don’t know that the story itself is remarkable. Would this story be in the New Yorker if it was set in a US city? Probably not. (But on the other the magazine has been clear that in selecting 20 under 40 authors, they went for a mix of proven authors and authors that are expected to excel in years to come.)

    Aaron makes a good point though. This story gives the impression of a typical story about an affair, but it veers to an ending that is pleasantly understated yet universal.

  6. Aaron, sorry for the delay in responding. It’s been a while since I read The Thing Around Your Neck, but I remember one called “Imitation” (or something similar) that this one brought to mind. They are quite different, yet also similar. I didn’t hate this story (I found it one of the better offerings from the 20 Under 40 crowd), but I didn’t love it either, and I think that is due to what I’ve already read from her (and perhaps that was unfair).

  7. I can’t add anything to the discussion on this one. A worthwhile read, but not a story that I will remember. Adichie has done this before (Trevor’s references are right from my perspective) and this version does not add anything. Certainly, a worthwhile magazine story — but I am getting more and more down on the 20 under 40 concept for publishing a lot of not very good material.

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