This Orange Prize-winning novel by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes place in the 1960s, chronicling the years before and during the Nigerian civil war that created the short-lived nation of Biafra. Adichie follows five characters in a non-linear time frame — pre-war, war, pre-war, war — to build a story that shows not just the futility of war but, unexpectedly, the complexity of it. This is a story that shows the way war forces people to grow and progress, not only in their own way of seeing the world, but in their relationships with others, with lovers, with family, with strangers.
The novel opens in the early sixties, with Ugwu, a boy from a rural village who has come to Nsukka to be a houseboy for Master. He is wide-eyed at the luxury he sees around him — wooden furniture! Meat every day! Books lining the walls! Master (who refuses to be called Master) turns out to be Odenigbo, a Nigerian revolutionary intellectual, eccentric behind his glasses, gathering a group of other professors and poets around him, calling for political reform. Odenigbo is in love with Olanna, a beautiful woman who grew up petted and pampered, but who no longer wishes to live her caged life and has joined Odenigbo’s revolutionary cause. Olanna’s non-identical twin sister is Kainene, sardonic, aloof, and business-minded, as different from Olanna as it is possible to be, and yet the two revolve around each other, sparring and tender by turns. And Kainene’s lover is Richard, a white British writer, who sees himself as Nigerian despite his inevitable status as an outsider.
These relationships are never static in Adichie’s hands. Even before the war, she has a profound understanding of the way small things can shift within a couple’s understanding of each other, or between sisters, and can cause rifts or bonds to change. When Odenigbo’s mother comes to visit and calls Olanna a witch who has ensnared her son, Olanna is furious that Odenigbo won’t stand up for her. But the conflict causes them both to want to cement their relationship:
In the morning, Odenigbo woke her up by taking her finger in his mouth. She opened her eyes; she could see the smoky light of dawn through the curtains.
“If you won’t marry me, nkem, then let’s have a child,” he said. …
Olanna had wanted to give the scent of his mother’s visit some time to diffuse before telling him she wanted to have a child, and yet here he was, voicing her own desire before she could. She looked at him in wonder. This was love: a string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles.
But the war interrupts miracles of this or any other sort. Adichie writes about the massacres that sparked the revolution, and then first thrill of the secession: the exhilaration of the new Biafra — the rising sun of the title is on the new flag –and the certainty that the world is watching in awe at their strength and boldness. Then the reality of war settles in: evacuation, refugee camps, starvation, shelling, corruption. The loss of their friends, one by one, and the death of so many strangers around them. The loss of the certainty of winning, which had buoyed them from the beginning. Their relationships change more profoundly: some become helplessly distant, while others become far more deeply entwined. As Kainene says at one point, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” Ugwu performs horrifying acts as a conscript that eventually make him understand himself and change; Richard may never understand that his own chameleon’s deep desire to belong is all that is blocking his ingrained racism.
The trajectories of the characters are quite different. Olanna, who began at a comfortable and hypothetical remove from politics, is the first to see the reality of what revolutionary rumbles may mean when she sees her aunt, uncle, and pregnant cousin killed in the Igbo massacres. While she becomes hard and strong in the war, Odenigbo’s ideals are crushed, and he turns to drinking. “You’re so strong, nkem,” he says, late in the book, and she’s saddened: he would never have said that before the war.
This notion of change and the possibility of change underlies the entire novel. Adichie does not offer the facile notion that good will come out of evil or that all is meant for the best, but she does allow her characters to believe, and sometimes to choose, that life can come after a terrible situation. This hard path is sketched early on when Olanna makes a startlingly difficult and generous gesture after a terrible rupture between her and Odenigbo: life returns, and their story continues, though in an unexpected direction. Life, for Adichie, is a narrative, a story, a hope.
This is a tremendous novel. It is so well-written and engaging that I spent every spare moment reading it. I didn’t know a thing about the politics of it before reading it, and I was completely drawn into it; the characters and the setting became as familiar to me as — oh — 19th-century Devonshire, where I also don’t live. I’m fairly sure I got the recommendation for this book from Eva, and I can’t thank her enough. It’s stunning, and moving, and beautiful, and you should read it too.