I know that I have stated elsewhere that short stories are not really my thing, that I have not managed to find them engaging. Well, The New Yorker magazine seems to have conspired to encourage me to revisit this genre with their 20 under 40 feature.
I was captivated immediately by Adichie, a favourite of mine, and her short story Birdsong. Adichie is a fabulous writer, renown for engaging with complex and confronting themes, weaving them through her narratives with awe inspiring skill. Her work almost always deals with the position of women, projecting a feminist bent that is clearly part of Adiche’s subtextual intent.
This story is classic Adichie. Set in Lagos, the tale follows the plight of a young woman romantically involved with a wealthy married man. Pushed into the shadows of the margin, quite literally, this woman is subjected to the humiliation of the secrecy surrounding her relationship with this man that readers know only as “my lover”. She is positioned in this way as the unrecognized Other, existing only for her lover on his terms, fashioned out of his language and expectations.
Adichie manufactures this tale around two tenses: the present tense where the female protagonist is trapped in traffic and the past, where she recollects her involvement with “her lover” and the humiliation that it left her with. This structure and the swift switches between past and present facilitate the type of musing which leaves readers reflecting upon the decisions that we make and the manner in which they impact upon our lives. As the protagonist recounts, she is far more aggressive in the present than she was in the past and this implies an underlying process of self development and self confidence in her identity and her position: “we know the rules and we follow them, and we never make room for things we might not have imagined. We close the door too soon.”
Adichie’s language in this story is so intricate that the reader cannot help but be totally immersed in every aspect of the narrative, overwhelmed by the raw emotions of the characters. When the protagonist feels “as though bits of my skin had warped and cracked and peeled off leaving patches of raw flesh so agonizingly painful I did not know what to do” the reader feels it too. When she realises with stark clarity the reality of the “rituals of distrust” that surround her relationship with her lover and in turn with herself, readers are equally moved to empathize with her struggle.
By the story’s end, readers desperately want this protagonist to leap out of her car in the traffic jam and proclaim herself, her feminity, her magnificence, for all the world to see. In some small way, the telling of this story is Adichie’s own proclamation.
A must read.