By Destiny O. Birdsong
355 pp. Grand Central. $28.
“Nobody’s Magic” is billed as a novel, but it’s really three novellas, each about a different Black woman with albinism in Shreveport, La. They’re all coming-of-age stories, of a kind: Sheltered, 20-year-old Suzette shakes free of her controlling father; Maple grapples with the sudden and violent loss of her mother; and Agnes, a struggling academic, tries desperately to find a way to live on her own terms, instead of a brutal job market’s, or a man’s. Rather than overlap, the novellas resonate with one another, allowing Birdsong, a poet, to display an impressive range of perspectives. The book also illuminates the lived-in corners of a multifaceted city, where headlines like gentrification, economic precarity and crime take on a human scale.
One striking source of resonance is Birdsong’s depiction of her characters’ sexuality: frank, unembarrassed and often delightful. Though Suzette is a virgin, her conversations with her best friend about masturbation and sex are casual and knowing — the goal of her own pleasure a given. In a stunning scene, Maple watches the pornographic film her mother made in the year before her death. Watching her perform a number of sex acts, Maple is moved by her mother’s evident joy. “She looked like she had found the sweetness of life,” Maple thinks, “something I knew, from the moment I saw her onscreen, that I had never tasted.” These passages stand in heartbreaking contrast to Agnes’s; she consents to sex she finds degrading or otherwise doesn’t desire, in part because she is financially dependent on her partners, and because she doesn’t believe she deserves any better. Agnes travels further in her story than the younger women, both literally and metaphorically, to get to a tenuous sense of freedom.
Birdsong risks unlikability with her characters, allowing them selfishness, rage, violence, helplessness and mistakes large and small. As a result, they feel as idiosyncratic, unpredictable and real as people from life, speaking in voices that are melodic and utterly specific. The magic here is not the supernatural kind, but rather an attention to the grace of the ordinary. It is the magic of watching these women come into their power.