This novel, Half of a Yellow Sun by the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche,was leant to me by a friend, who told me I should read it. The book is unusual but the reason for the book’s popularity becomes apparent within a few pages of reading: it is extremely good.
Half of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria, Africa during the 1960’s and deals with the troubled period around the time of the secession of Biafra and the war that follows. The book was recommended to me by my friend Mary. She did so with the proviso that, much of the detail of the suffering endured by the people during the war between Nigeria and Biafra, was harrowing, a real disgrace. This was certainly true.
A masterly, haunting new novel from a writer heralded by The Washington Post Book World as “the 21st-century daughter of Chinua Achebe,” Half of a Yellow Sun re-creates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria in the 1960s, and the chilling violence that followed.
With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.
Epic, ambitious, and triumphantly realized, Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel about moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, about class and race—and the ways in which love can complicate them all. Adichie brilliantly evokes the promise and the devastating disappointments that marked this time and place, bringing us one of the most powerful, dramatic, and intensely emotional pictures of modern Africa that we have ever had.
The story opens before the war, shortly after Nigeria wins independence from the UK, when middle-class life at Nsukka University is rich in food, booze, revolutionary rhetoric and hope. Ugwu moves from the country to become the houseboy to an eccentric but charming academic at the University. It is narrated from the point of view of the three main characters. Ugwu, Olanna who is the wife of Ugwu’s master and Richard: the Englishman with whom Olanna’s twin sister lives.
The reader experiences the daily lives of the people through the eyes of the three characters . It is also through them that the violence, privations and terrors of the war are witnessed. However, the reader does not know any more than the characters know. As a result of this when the characters do not allow themselves to disbelieve the prospect of Biafran triumph. Only the reader with some knowledge of the history of the period will know better.
The author imposes a strict structure. Each chapter of Half of a Yellow Sun is told from a single viewpoint, and each break between chapters involves a shift to the viewpoint of a different character. Ugwu’s point of view is crucial. It is with his experience that the book begins and he also draws the story to a close. He is also the character most changed and corrupted by the evils of the war. When he is coerced into joining the Biafran army the reader observes his moral decline from taking part in a successful skirmish with Nigerian troops and, dubbed “Target Destroyer” by his fellow soldiers to his involvement in a gang rape of a girl in a bar. This very disturbing scene is clearly depicted and contrasted with earlier descriptions of Ugwu’s teenage fantasies, shame and sexual exploits. When the war is over and he returns to his family, he learns about of the gang rape of his own sister by Nigerian soldiers. Only Ugwu himself and the reader know just why he sobs so heavily and with such shame.
The increasing difficulties that Olanna and her family endure are unrelenting. The reader travels with them from the comfort of their home in Nsukka where they entertain friends and colleagues regularly. The family are complacent about the security of their social position and intellectual freedoms. We follow them from their comfortable home all the way to one scruffy room where the kitchen and bathroom are shared with numerous others and back to their home when they return after the war. We despair with Olanna as she queues for basic food from international aid agencies and learns to make soap from ash. The reader shares her pain when she returns to her home but it has been trashed by marauding forces. Olanna and Ugwu strive to return the property to its former glory.
Richard, from England, lives with Olanna’s twin sister and is the third narrator. He has an earnest interest in Nigerian art and history and comes to understand Igbo after he moves in with Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene. The reader experiences increasing disillusionment as Richard endures the disintegration of society in Biafra, his adopted country. We also feel his guilt and despair about Kainene’s death.
The author makes this forgotten war real again. She makes the reader aware of the tragedy behind the statistics. Although the book finishes somewhat abruptly after the war, I hesitate to complain that the final chapters seem rushed because I enjoyed the novel and found it surprisingly easy to read. Half of a Yellow Sun is impressive as a testament to human gentleness as well as cruelty. It is definitely worth reading. I highly recommend it.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grew up in Nigeria.
Her work has been translated into over thirty languages and has appeared in various publications, including The New Yorker, Granta, The O. Henry Prize Stories, the Financial Times, and Zoetrope. She is the author of the novels Purple Hibiscus, which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; Half of a Yellow Sun, which won the Orange Prize and was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book; and Americanah, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of The New York Times Top Ten Best Books of 2013. Ms. Adichie is also the author of the story collection The Thing Around Your Neck.
Ms. Adichie has been invited to speak around the world. Her 2009 TED Talk, The Danger of A Single Story, is now one of the most-viewed TED Talks of all time. Her 2012 talk We Should All Be Feminists has a started a worldwide conversation about feminism, and was published as a book in 2014.
Her most recent book, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, was published in March 2017. A recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, Ms. Adichie divides her time between the United States and Nigeria.